Books: Death in the sugar cane

D The Farming of Bones by Edwige Danticat Abacus pounds 9.99

Aged just 30, Danticat is already a big hit in the States. Her first novel, Breath Eyes Memory, was an Oprah Book Club selection last year. In the acknowledgements of The Farming of Bones the author expresses thanks for a variety of literary awards and the patronage of Jonathan Demme, director of the film version of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Like Morrison, Danticat uses magical elements to confront a subject of such tragic proportions that it's a challenge to express it let alone do it justice. The Farming of Bones isn't entirely successful, but it confirms that Danticat is a writer of great force with still more potential.

Her second novel, based in fact, deals with a bout of ethnic cleansing in 1937, by the Dominican Republic of its itinerant Haitian labourers. It breaks down roughly into four sections: the lives of workers and bosses before the catastrophe, the massacre itself, the flight of a few survivors, and their attempts once back in their homeland to wrest some peace of mind from their suffering.

The narrator, a 23-year-old Haitian maid, Amabelle Desir, is unassuming almost to the point of having no character at all, which works well at the beginning. She's had to step in suddenly to help her master's wife and childhood friend Senora Valencia give birth. The labour is dangerous; as the twins, the boy a pale "cherimoya milk", the girl a mix of "tan Brazil nut and black salsify", are passed with joy between them, "`Do you think my daughter will always be the colour she is now?' Senora Valencia asked. `My poor love, what if she's mistaken for one of your people?'"

Danticat uses understatement to painful effect, first to present this amiable face of the coloniser and next to raise the question whether violence the only effective response.

The workers lack neither weapons nor motivation. Sugar cane cutting is known as bone farming because when the machete goes in the sound is like crunching chicken bones. Of all the local crops, cane takes the most toll on people who harvest it. The labourers, including Amabelle's lover Sebastien, have endured in the hope of a better future. Danticat builds up tension expertly; using a style that seems almost languorous to present the pain and stoicism of their world - a ritual bathing scene at daybreak is especially vivid - she adds layer on layer of wrongs until events bring Sebastien to a choice. One night, he can kill the man who through arrogant carelessness killed his friend, or he can stay with Amabelle in her room and invent happiness.

This first, longest section is by far the best, and that's a pity in terms of the novel's larger aims. Danticat has embraced the conviction of Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis that through the use of "the marvellous" - myth and the imagination - it's possible to break free of the prison of history. Some of the most potent passages are those in which the oppressed are closely, even gladly tied to their oppressors. The writing flags while they are escaping and doesn't wholly recover when the refugees are safe.

That the perpetrators of the massacre are hazy is clearly intentional. Danticat plans to shift the focus to the possibility of redemption through Sebastien. But he is missing, possibly dead. It is Amabelle, so stick- thin she disappears at times from her own narrative, who must take us through the Haitians' flight from the Dominican Republic. Danticat is particularly strong on the guilt of survival. Sebastien comes to represent a counter-culture of the imagination. Amabelle is physically broken, but she can continue to dream. Danticat ensures that at least some of those whose names aren't in the history books don't "vanish like smoke in the early morning air".

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine