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
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk