Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Spectrum of Lives Touched by Torture ; Stories about the Legacy of Abuse in Haiti

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Spectrum of Lives Touched by Torture ; Stories about the Legacy of Abuse in Haiti

Article excerpt

As the world hopes for a quick return to order after this month's revolution in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat offers a warning about the persistence of disorder for those who have survived. A native of Haiti who moved to the United States when she was 12, Danticat earned a devoted audience for her debut novel, "Breath, Eyes, Memory" (1994), which earned Oprah's approval, and "Krik? Krak!" (1995), which became a National Book Award finalist.

Her new novel seems less autobiographical than either of those ("My father, thank goodness, is not in this book," she writes in the afterword.) But she's still wholly devoted to both the culture of Haiti and the indelible legacy of its violent past.

"The Dew Breaker" takes its strangely beautiful title from a survivor's description of President Duvalier's torturers: "Mostly it was at night. But often they'd also come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they'd take you away."

Most of the nine chapters in this novel appeared earlier as short stories in either The New Yorker or other collections. Their assemblage now as a book would strike a distracted reader as haphazard, but the stories relate to one another like beautiful shards of a broken vase. They're all sharp, their order jumbled, and while some fit together clearly, others seem frustratingly hard to place.

Considered together, though, they describe the trajectory of psychological shrapnel that emanates from political terror. In fact, this sense of disjunction in "The Dew Breaker" is thematically significant in a way that it can be in few other novels made from collected stories. The effort to draw connections between characters and events in these chapters reflects, in some mercifully small degree, the challenge faced by victims of torture to render their lives whole. And Danticat is equally interested in the inverse challenge faced by a retired torturer, who must keep the unmentionable aspects of his life disassociated from his reformed persona.

"The Dew Breaker" opens with a haunting story told by a young artist who's driving from New York to Florida with her father to deliver a sculpture. Like much of her work, this impressionist object has been inspired by her father's ordeal in a Haitian prison. "My whole adult life," she writes, "I have struggled to find the proper manner of sculpting my father, a quiet and distant man."

From an early age, her love for him was so desperate that she "vowed to always tolerate, even indulge him," but that promise is tested to the limit when he discards her sculpture just before they arrive at the patron's house. "I don't deserve a statue," he tells his daughter. "Your father was the hunter, he was not the prey."

In a moment - a horrifying version of every child's surprise at a parent's complexity - she must realign her entire concept of her father. …

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