Edwidge Danticat's cousin was buried alive under his own house.
Like so many other Haitian-Americans, the Miami author lost family in the 2010 earthquake that by some estimates killed more than 300,000 people in and around Port-au-Prince.
"At some point, his body was moved to the family mausoleum, but his son was lost in the rubble and was never recovered," she remembers. "It's always a part of visiting Haiti, a visit to the living and to the dead."
Released this week, Claire of the Sea Light is Danticat's first book-length work of literary fiction since The Dew Breaker in 2004. Since then, she has received her second National Book Award nomination, for her memoir Brother, I'm Dying, and a MacArthur "Genius" grant. Also, on her most recent visit to Haiti, she was given a bag crocheted by the wife of her late cousin.
"She was in the rubble for three days with her other children, and after that," Danticat says, "she felt like she was going mad and started making these bags to cope. Sometimes, what you come away with from Haiti is so intangible, so from this last visit, I'm so happy to have this bag."
Mitchell Kaplan, cofounder of Miami Book Fair International and owner of Books & Books, says the Oprah-anointed Danticat is "increasingly being recognized as one of our most important writers. The new novel is really powerful and will continue that trajectory."
In Claire of the Sea Light, a body washes up on the shore of a Haitian fishing village. All of the witnesses seem to be connected to each other in surprising ways that are by turns terrifying, scandalous, and life-affirming. Overlapping narratives detail the lives of these characters over a quarter-century spanning roughly the period of Haitian history between the uprising against Jean-Claude Duvalier and the days before the earthquake.
"I wanted the reader to feel like you were on the beach that night," Danticat says, "like you just wandered through that town. You ended up on the beach and you are listening to snippets of conversation and watching what is going on around you."
Sections of Claire of the Sea Light date back as early as 2005, but for Danticat, "Even if it was always in my mind a pre-earthquake book, I was writing it with a preoccupation that something very terrible was coming to the country." The residents of her fictitious seaside town are subject to the same rogue waves, exploding frogs, and tremors that heralded the earthquake. One character, while considering the decaying lighthouse no longer able to protect the community's boats, presciently asks, "How do you even choose what to mend when so much has already been destroyed?"
Danticat's sly humor in disarming asides leavens the portent without upsetting the book's sea-foam delicacy. She sets a darkly funny sequence in a funeral home by using details from memories of her aunt's death, when Danticat and her family were given the option of dressing the body for the funeral.
"There were so many things that struck me about that," she recalls of the experience. "How heavy someone is. Just how heavy it is to lift a person's leg to put on their stocking. A living person gives you some help."
The traumas that the 44-year-old has detailed in her nonfiction are not evident in Danticat's easy laugh or smooth, ageless face. When Claire of the Sea Light repeatedly pairs births with deaths and sometimes opts not to differentiate the two, it's a confluence that Danticat attributes to her Haitian upbringing.
"When you lose a parent, when a child is born, you're suddenly hyperaware of where you fit in the continuity of things," she says. "I grew up with a minister uncle who might preside over a wedding on Friday, a funeral Saturday, and baptize a child on Sunday. There's isn't as much effort in Haiti as there is here to shield children from all that."