Troy Patterson
March 19, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Dew Breaker

Current Status
In Season
Edwidge Danticat

We gave it a B+

As I write this, gun battles erupt in the capital of Haiti, looting proceeds apace, and a rebel leader, having already deposed the country’s president, threatens to arrest the prime minister. This is business as usual in a country whose history seems to exhaust the vocabulary of political violence.

Edwidge Danticat — Oprah-approved and National Book Award-short-listed for lyrical works about Haitian immigrants and life under the Duvalier dictatorships from the ’60s to the ’80s — is not what you’d call a political writer…until you remember that the personal IS the political. To quote from her new book, The Dew Breaker, the subject of her smooth, Strunk and White prose is ”men and women whose tremendous agonies filled every blank space in their lives.”

”The Dew Breaker” is a suite of pieces that falls somewhere between a novel and a story collection; imagine J.D. Salinger arranging his Glass family tales in one back-flashing volume. The structure denies narrative force even as it delivers the pleasures of intricacy. In the opener, ”The Book of the Dead,” a Haitian-American artist’s discovery that her father has destroyed a sculpture she made of him prompts the revelation that he wasn’t a political prisoner back in Haiti, as she’d been told, but a prison torturer and merciless killer. Thereafter, we glimpse this family from other angles: the mother’s longing to let her daughter in on this secret; the revenge fantasy of the boarder in their Brooklyn basement, a man whose parents the father murdered.

In the conclusive title story, Danticat shifts the action back to the late ’60s to view things through the father’s eyes — his needs, his self-justifications, the tedium that motors his malice: ”It was becoming like any other job…. He liked to paddle them with braided cowhide, stand on their cracking backs and jump up and down like a drunk on a trampoline, pound a rock on the protruding bone behind their earlobes until they couldn’t hear the orders he was shouting at them….” Danticat has an emotional imagination capable of evoking empathy for both predator and prey, and that, maybe, is as politically radical as fiction can get.

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