Book Club Reflection: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

9 Mar

A few weeks ago, my book club met to discuss our latest book, Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat. You can read my thoughts on the book here. A lot of us were on the fence with this book. A few really liked it and a few people made a ‘meh’ face and shrugged when asked about it.

We used the Lit Lovers questions to guide our discussion.

The author was new to all of us. One woman looked into her other writings and noticed that she wrote a lot of poetry. Her prose had a lot of poetic elements to it, specifically imagery, and it was easy to see the poetic influence in her style. We thought it was interesting that the author lives in the US yet she is so critical of those who leave Haiti and come home only to be uncomfortable in their native country. We thought she was being critical of herself in a way. We also thought she probably wrote herself into the story as Jessamine, who was a likable ex-pat but still had strong American influences. I liked Jessamine even though it seemed Max Sr. thought she was a little off. I find it interesting that Danticat writes about Haiti and praises it as a country yet still lives in Miami. Why not move back?
We pointed out that a lot of the symbolism surrounded the dichotomy of life and death. When Claire is born, her mother dies. The day Madame Gaelle’s daughter is born, her husband dies. The sea takes lives, but also provides a livelihood for the fishermen. Pamaxine is a born and is a life from Max Jr. while Bernard dies. I don’t think the amount of death in this book really struck me until we discussed it.

The other big symbol in the book was the lighthouse. It was mentioned that it’s used mostly as a memorial. The lighthouse used to guide ships around the rocky shores that surround it and save people from death. Now it’s old and out of use and instead of saving people from death, it’s used to remember those that have died. Candles are lit there for Caleb to remember his passing.

The whole city was falling into disrepair like the lighthouse. The mayor was an undertaker, someone who made death look nice and helped people move on from the death of a loved one. The waters were over-fished and not as prosperous. The trees were chopped down and that caused flooding of many homes. The city was dying.
Nozias was a very interesting character to us. He loved his daughter so much that he wanted to give her away. That’s a very strong and caring love. Nozias was the kind of person who expected the worst to happen. He was convinced that something was going to happen to him and he needed to make sure Claire was cared for when it happened. After Claire ran away, he was convinced she was dead and believed he could not help. He was so convinced of this that he fell asleep while others were looking for him. The degree to which he disliked himself and dreamt of bad things happening made us pity him and at the same time resent him.

One of our member suspected that older Claire was supposed to represent a siren. I was tasked with looking this up and did in fact find a Siren as part of popular Voodoo culture. This site describes her as feminine, beautiful, and sensual. I think the image we get of older Claire fits this well. The scene where she jumps into the sea and is surrounded by the fish seemed so surreal and other-worldly that it made us suspect she was a symbol of something magical.
The image of the siren that we are more familiar with is from Greek mythology; a beautiful woman who sings to sailors to lure them to their death among the rocks. In a town with no working lighthouse, that seems ominous. The siren makes death seem beautiful and desirable to sailors with her voice. This reminded us of older Claire’s job preparing those who had passed for funerals. She would dress up the dead and make them pretty again. She was very comfortable around death.

Claire seemed to feel she never fit in with her friends. In the scene at the end where they’re playing wonn, she feels like an outcast because none of them like the song she wants to sing. She loves it and keeps it close to her heart while the other girls dismiss her quickly. We thought this was a microcosm of Clair’s interactions with her schoolmates. Our social worker member suspected that this was because she grew up with no mother. Many of those who have lost a close family member feel that no one understands them or what they want. It was sad to see a girl whose father was giving her away and who felt like she didn’t’ have any friends who understood her. How lonely that must feel. Her thoughts in the final chapter seemed very mature for a seven-year-old girl. Maybe she’s mature for her age because of her loneliness or maybe the author was projecting her own thoughts on the child. But I don’t think we can say children don’t have complicated feelings.

I never quite figured out Madame Gaelle. She seemed to have a lot of conflicted loyalties and passions. When her husband died, she hired a hit man to kill Bernard without ever really asking a lot of questions. When her daughter died, she did nothing. Maybe she realized avenging her husband’s death didn’t make her feel any better or maybe she thought Rose’s death was more of an accident and couldn’t be avenged. All the same, she had conflicted feelings about the man responsible for her daughter’s death. She considered sleeping with him at one point. Yves never recovered from what he’d done to Rose. He lost his identity as he fought with the identity of ‘murderer’ which he never would have chosen for himself. He couldn’t play soccer any more, he couldn’t be himself.

A small part of us wanted Gaelle and Nozias to end up together so Claire could have a proper family. It would have been a big social ‘step down’ for Gaelle to be with Nozias. Going from shop owner to marrying a man who lives in a tin hut is probably breaking a lot of social customs that either were willing to violate.

We were surprised that Max Jr. was so cowardly. He never told anyone how he really felt about things it seemed. He was in love with Bernard but we never know if they told each other their real feelings about one another. He was gay but didn’t tell his father. He knew Bernard was innocent but he never told anyone. He never defended himself or those he loved in the court of popular opinion. It seems that he might have been honest with Jessamine but she would be the only one.

Max Sr. was a very imposing character. He seemed to be the glue that tied together a lot of the characters in the story. He wanted to make a difference on the island and his school was the main way he tried to accomplish this goal. He had learned that it was a way to help children so he kept doing it. Once the children were outside of his school, he didn’t care for them anymore. When they got older or if they left the school, they were outside of those he cared about. He didn’t care about Flor being raped by Max Jr. He didn’t care about Louise as long as the student he had was cared for. He knew the kid was a brat, but he was a student so Max Sr. cared for him more. I liked Max Sr. a lot at the beginning of the book, but I disliked him more and more as the story went on.

The radio station had a very central role in the community. A lot of things happened to the people who worked there or were there. We had the impression that the community was not very religious and the radio station filled the role of community gathering that a church would. The radio shows were like sermons which makes Louise a lot like a preacher. The people in the town didn’t have the money for TVs and lighting, but you didn’t need either of these to listen to the radio. All you needed was batteries.

Louse wasn’t afraid to talk about things the others thought were taboo. Her show was like a mission to her, which furthers the comparison to a preacher. Her show was like a confessional. I asked the group if someone could make a connection to her mouth bleeding and someone likened it to stigmata. Jesus used his hands to heal and bled from the hands. Louise used her mouth and bled from there.

Having Flor on the show was the pivotal moment of the book. Flor was an unlikely hero because she had been abused in her victimhood. She was empowered by Louise to tell her story and free herself. I thought it was a good way to end the book.

Our next book is the non-fiction The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernen. I’m loving it so far and I think it will make a great discussion starter.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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