The Dew Breakers by Edwidge Danticat

Close shaves from Haiti to Brooklyn

Edwidge Danticat is a young Haitian writer who lives in Florida. Her debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, memorably fused West Indian folklore with scenes from the Haitian diaspora in America. When Danticat left Haiti for the US with her parents in 1981, aged 12, her birthplace was under the dictatorship of President "Baby Doc" Duvalier and his feared Tontons Macoute. In much of her work she interrogates Haiti's troubled past as well as her own ambivalent status as a Haitian exile. The Dew Breaker, her latest novel, chronicles both the victims and perpetrators of Macoute violence as they later struggle to survive in West Indian enclaves of New York.

At first the novel appears to be in disarray, the plot leaping backwards and forwards in time. A narrative soon emerges, however, and the disparate stories converge into a coherent finale. Danticat's literary influences have always been diverse, and here she borrows from Graham Greene's anti-Duvalierist novel The Comedians as well as Alex Garland's disjointed thriller The Tesseract to create a sequence of stories-within-stories. These stories interlock round the disturbed personality of a former "dew breaker", the name given to a government torturer from the Duvalier years ("they'd often come before dawn," recalls a victim, "as the dew was setting on the leaves, and they'd take you away").

Danticat's Dew Breaker, once a political big shot, is now a scared and broken man who scrapes a living as a barber in Brooklyn. Each day he lives in fear that his identity will be revealed by a new customer. With immense skill, Danticat builds up the suspense and foreboding as the retired torturer evades exposure. His daughter is a sculptor, and through her Danticat introduces us to other Haitian characters in and around Brooklyn, among them nurses, minicab drivers and day-care workers.

In the finest story, "Night Talkers", a Haitian-American youth named Dany returns to Haiti to inform his aunt that he has found the man who murdered their family. Too frightened to confront the Dew Breaker, Dany crept into his house at night and stared down at the murderer's sleeping face. Should he strangle the man in vengeance? (Dany was unaware that his parents' killer lived across the block, but in this dramatic way unrelated lives can collide, Danticat seems to be saying.) The closing story is a knuckle-biting account of the Dew Breaker's last killing in Haiti before he fled to America and assumed a new identity. The book's random intersections and plots are here satisfyingly resolved. Danticat's glazed, elegant prose propels The Dew Breaker along effortlessly. This excellent, unsettling novel is her finest, and a literary gem.

Ian Thomson's 'Bonjour Blanc: a journey through Haiti' (Vintage) is reissued this month