ABACUS £9.99 (210pp) £9.99 (free p&p per order) from 0870 079 8897
The Dew Breakers by Edwidge Danticat
Close shaves from Haiti to Brooklyn
Friday 21 May 2004
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
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Chilling drone footage captures Auschwitz ahead of 70th anniversary of liberation
- 5 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after that Wembley Stadium rant
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Mortdecai becomes Johnny Depp's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Last Tango in Halifax, review: Can we ever really move on from Kate?
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
Leaked documents show Ukip leaders approve NHS privatisation once it becomes more 'acceptable to the electorate'