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".

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