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Claire of the Sea Light Reader’s Guide

By Edwidge Danticat

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

READERS GUIDE

The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat’s beautifully told new work of fiction, which seamlessly weaves a complex web of lives in a fictional Haitian town on the night a seven-year-old girl goes missing.

Introduction

In Claire of the Sea Light, best-selling and award-winning author Edwidge Danticat brings us deep into the world of Ville Rose, Haiti—a town at once blessed by natural wonders and haunted by the secrets and ghosts of the past. We enter this nexus of people and place through Claire Limyè Lanmè, Claire of the Sea Light, a little girl whose heartbreak and tragedies, and whose hopes for a better future, allow the adults around her to discover startling truths about themselves—and each other—during the course of a single, transformative night.
 
On Claire’s seventh birthday, she and her fisherman father Nozias Faustin follow the same tradition they have long practiced: they go to visit the grave of her now-deceased mother, and his wife: a beautiful, universally loved woman named Claire Narcis who died giving birth to the girl who bears her name. Nozias has raised Claire on his own, yet has all along been tormented by a single idea: that, in order to provide for his daughter he should leave her “pou chèche lavi”—to look for a better life—and to entrust Claire with a woman of greater means: a local shopkeeper called Gaëlle Lavaud.
 
By the evening of that seventh birthday, Nozias has made up his mind, finally convinced that to leave Claire in another’s hands is the best decision for them both. But something wholly unexpected happens. As he is speaking to Madame Gaëlle about this fateful choice, Claire disappears, setting in motion a search to find her, one that brings to the surface stories from the shared pasts—and presents—of all the lives that mysteriously surround this one little girl. Danticat delivers these myriad stories with lush prose and piercing insight into the hearts and minds of her characters. As taut as poetry and wide-ranging in scope as a novel twice its length, Claire of the Sea Light is a masterful work of family and friendship, love and revenge, loss and homecoming, from one of our most brilliant and original storytellers.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The opening chapter of Claire of the Sea Light moves backward chronologically through each of Claire’s birthdays, ultimately returning to the present day of the narrative. How does this structure contribute to the book’s sense of time overall, and to its weaving of past and present as more characters are introduced?

2. What does it mean that Albert Vincent is both the town of Ville Rose’s undertaker and its mayor? How are these dual roles reflected in his relationship with Claire Narcis, Nozias’s wife and Claire’s mother, when she works for him preparing bodies for burial?

3. That Claire visits her mother’s grave on her birthdays brings poignantly to the fore the notion that life and death are intertwined. In what other ways does that happen in the book? Do ghosts—or chimè—have a positive or negative influence over the living?

4. The sea both opens and closes the book, offering powerful images of its destructive and restorative force: the fisherman Caleb is drowned at the book’s beginning when “a wall of water rise[s] from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue” (3), and at the book’s end, Max Junior is spat back from the sea that had “taken [him] this morning” (237). What roles does the sea play in the fates of all the characters in the book? What other myths, stories, and fables come to your mind by this book’s evocation of water?

5. At one point in the story, Nozias recalls another watery scene, when he and wife Claire Narcis went night fishing, and Claire slipped into the moonlit water to observe a school of shimmering fish. It is from this moment that their daughter, and Danticat’s book, get their name. How does this important memory shape your impression of Claire Narcis, including in what we learn about her by the book’s conclusion?

6. The relationships between parents and children take many forms in the book’s three main families. Claire and Nozias remain at the center, showing how both parent and child experience joy and fear, trust and wariness. How is this theme expanded upon by bonds between Max Sr. and Max Junior, Max. Junior and Pamaxime, Madame Gaëlle and Rose, and even Odile and Henri? In each of these, who, if any, suffers more: parent or child?

7. Madame Gaëlle’s story (“The Frogs,” 41) opens with a description of a sudden explosion of frogs that has plagued Ville Rose, which her husband Laurent explains “is surely a sign that something more terrible is going to happen” (44). The smell of the frogs’ corpses at first nauseates the pregnant Gaëlle, yet the act of putting a frog in her mouth seems to save her baby from risk. How does this miracle, along with the simultaneous death of Laurent, reflect the town’s mythic culture and one woman’s sense of her fate?

8. Much of the lyricism and power of Claire of the Sea Light derives from the descriptions of its Haitian setting: of the sea, the mountains, the flowers, the “sparkly feathers from angel wings” that Claire searches for after her waking dreams (236). Would the book work in any other place, either in the Caribbean or beyond? How might things change if so?

9. Although this is fiction, Danticat vividly evokes present-day Haitian culture and society, including its poverty (5), gangs, and restavèk children—the child-servitude that Nozias fears for Claire. How do these realities affect your reading of the book and the sense of authenticity of Claire’s story? Of Bernard’s?

10. The radio is a major form of communicating stories throughout the novel, and the radio station is a place where confessions and revelations are spoken, but also where betrayals, and even murder, occur. Why do you think Danticat chose to set so many key scenes at the radio station? Louise George is the host of a radio show called Di Mwen, which translates to “Tell Me.” Does honest speech come more naturally in this medium where the speaker’s face is hidden? In what ways is Danticat’s book in and of itself like a radio show?

11. Claire of the Sea Light is rich with secrets: of paternity, of sexual identity, of crimes, of lies that unfold in the course of the narrative. How do the multiple voices of the book help withhold the truth, yet also expose it at key moments? In what cases does not knowing the entire truth of a situation—such Nozias’s plan to have a vasectomy, Max Junior’s love for Bernard, and Albert Vincent’s for Claire Narcis—hurt or protect the person keeping the secret, and the person from whom the truth is kept?

12. Danticat chooses to tell her story through multiple voices and points of view, which provides the reader with a kaleidoscopic view of the past. How does this also affect the book’s presentation of memory, and of our ability to shape certain memories that may not be our own?

13. In the scene where Nozias leaves his goodbye letter for Claire with Madame Gaëlle, both characters seem to hesitate in their willingness to participate in Nozias’s decision to leave. How do their interactions in this moment reflect their unique understandings of their responsibilities, and also of death and the future? What makes Nozias turn to Gaëlle in particular, and what motivates Gaëlle to take in a new daughter after she’s lost her own? Is money the most important thing to have, in raising a child, in offering him or her security and love?

14. Although Claire Limyè Lanmè is the book’s fulcrum, her point of view does not appear until the final chapter. Does it seem that Claire accepts her fate and her father’s decision? How does placing those other stories before Claire’s affect your feelings about her in the final scene? What do you imagine will happen to Claire in the future?

15. The choice Nozias faces—whether or not to leave his child in the care of another—is one that many real parents in Haiti struggle with today. Does this knowledge change your understanding of the book, or your sympathies with Nozias? What would you do if you were in Nozias’s position?

About this Author

Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including Brother, I’m Dying, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner and a National Book Award finalist; Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner; and The Dew Breaker, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist and winner of the inaugural Story Prize. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She lives in Miami.
 
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