Claire of the Sea Light Summary

Edwidge Danticat

Claire of the Sea Light

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Claire of the Sea Light Summary

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Claire of the Sea Light is a 2013 novel by Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat. The book was a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was included on numerous lists of the best books of 2013, including those of Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Washington Post, and National Public Radio. The novel is set in a fictional island town called Ville Rose in Haiti and tells the story of the disappearance of seven year old Claire Limye Lanme Faustin.

In Ville Rose, the poor people live in small shacks on the edge of the sea. The wealthy, who make up a very small part of the town’s population, live in expensive gated mansions in a section called Anthere Hill, which is located near a lighthouse. As the story opens, Nozias is walking toward his boat, a sloop; he hears a noise in the distance and witnesses a large wave overtake the boat of his friend, Caleb. The boat, The Fifine, and Caleb are sunk by the wave. As Caleb dies that morning, Claire and Nozias, her father, go to the cemetery where her mother is buried. This is a routine that they have maintained since Claire was three years old and they do it in memory of her mother who died in childbirth. It is referred to as a “day of both life and death.”

There are seven main characters in Claire of the Sea Light. While Nozias and Claire are the central focus of the novel, interconnected themes of revenge and resentment among others draw into the plot Madame Gaelle Lavaud, Bernard Dorien, Max Ardin (Junior and Senior), and Louise George. The death of Nozias’ wife connects the father and daughter but he is warned that the girl should be taken away from the place she was born or she will end up spending “too much time chasing a shadow,” which is something she can never catch. Nozias sends her to live with his wife’s relatives. They live in a mountainous area and he does not see the girl for three years. While she is away, he sleeps with a dress his wife made for their daughter to wear on her first birthday, imagining that Claire is still with him. When she turns three years old, he decides that she should come to live with him again.

When she was not living with him, Nozias considered how he would take care of Claire when the time came. He loves his daughter and is a righteous person but his poverty makes him feel that he would make many mistakes in trying to raise a child. He thinks of the night his wife died as her labor ended, and he carried the baby to Madame Lavaud, the well-off owner of the town’s fabric store. Madame Lavaud at the time had a three year old daughter named Rose, whom she had been nursing, so she was able to nourish Claire as well. Nozias grew to hope that one day Madame Lavaud would consent to be a surrogate mother to Claire. When Rose was seven years old she died in an accident that Nozias witnessed. From that point, Nozias asked Madam Lavaud every year if she would take Claire as her daughter. He knows that she has the financial means and that Rose’s death has left her lonely. She turns him down every year until the day of Caleb’s death, when Claire turns seven, at which point she finally agrees.

Nozias and the fishermen of the town construct a bonfire on the beach after Caleb’s death and have a wake for him. This is when Nozias finds out that Madame Lavaud will take Claire. To Nozias, this is the realization of what he has long wanted for his daughter. For Claire, it represents her father giving her away. Claire asks permission to go back to the shack to get her possessions. Instead, she runs away, to Anthere Hill near the lighthouse.  Other storylines include a potential flood and thoughts of rebuilding the lighthouse. Some elements are not necessarily fully developed or brought to conclusion, leading the Los Angeles Review of Books to note, “Chronology is suspended in Claire of the Sea Light. It’s almost as if, in a world so stultified by poverty and environmental destruction, time were plastic. Developmental arcs are deformed or completely eliminated. The likelihood of arbitrary violence, environmental decimation and political corruption, creates oddly passive characters whose lives are frozen by terror and grief-emotional zombies.”

The Guardian said of Claire of the Sea Light, “One of the great successes of this book-with its interconnected tales that bring it closer to novel than short-story collection-is how adeptly Danticat mines that ‘verge’ for its emotional and dramatic possibilities. So many lives teeter on the brink, but not without the possibility that something might yet save them from going over the edge entirely…Some of the finest writing in this book combines a dual sense of beauty and blight.”