Field of Screams


At 29, Edwidge Danticat is, as the expression goes, in like a bullet. Her first two books, a story collection (Krik? Krak!) and a novel (Breath, Eyes, Memory), have earned her both literary and popular acclaim. Citations have come from sources as diverse as Seventeen and Essence; she’s also received a National Book Award nomination, and, of course, a coveted spot on Oprah’s Book Club.

Certainly there’s much to admire in Danticat’s second novel. Set in Haiti, the story takes place primarily in 1937, the year the generalissimo of the Dominican Republic ordered the slaughter of untold thousands of Haitians living and working in his country. We witness this event through the eyes of Amabelle Désir, a young Haitian woman whose parents, when she was a child, drowned before her eyes in the Massacre River, which separates the two nations on the island of Hispaniola. She was found soon after by Don Ignacio and his daughter, the future Señora Valencia, and she is in their employ as a maid some years later when the slaughter occurs. Désir loses her lover, the mysterious Sebastien Onius, in the violence, and she herself is partially disfigured: one of her legs ends up shorter than the other as a result of a beating, her broken jaw never closes properly again.

Heady stuff, this, and made all the more shocking by Danticat’s sly setup. The book opens with a scene of Désir–her dead parents were midwives–helping Señora Valencia deliver her first children, twins, while her husband, Señor Pico, is away with the Dominican army. In his rush to return home, he hits a Haitian cane cutter with his car, but he’s less interested in searching for his victim’s body than returning to his wife and newborn children. It soon emerges that Désir’s lover Sebastien was with Señor Pico’s victim when he was struck and killed, and it seems, then, that this is what the novel will be about: a domestic drama in which Désir attempts to navigate between the moneyed world of her employer and childhood friend, and the world of her lover, who works in the cane fields as a cutter. But all this is derailed by history–by the slaughter which, it turns out, Señor Pico helps orchestrate. It is a bold and admirable departure from the expected, a move which marks Danticat’s ambition as a writer; and if, in the end, she’s not equal to the task she sets herself, the failure is less one of innate ability than of honed craft. I think she will write the book she wants to write, she’s just not there yet. Danticat’s eye is focused on too many things in this book, and, though she writes her stories with courage and conviction, they are, surprisingly, almost devoid of passion. It’s as if she were trying so hard to juggle all the balls she has in the air that she is unable to add flair or feeling to her performance.

Not the least of this novel’s attributes is the skill with which Danticat renders her native Haiti. Seamlessly blending shorthand cultural explanations with her fictional narrative, The Farming of Bones is infused with a clarity that often approaches grace. At these moments, Danticat’s voice is at once mythic and entirely contemporary, the voice of an ancient storyteller and a new writer struggling to hammer out her craft. Here, Désir witnesses her employers dealing with the sudden death of one of their twins:

    Juana was entrusted with the care of Rosalinda, and the señor and señora sat in their room most of the evening. As he held her, she groaned now and then, trying not to cry too loudly. He did not know how to ease her pain, not very well in any case; he kept shifting as she tried to find a comfortable nook to claim for herself, her own place to sink into, within his arms. He was silent while she sobbed, not offering a word. Perhaps he was suppressing his own tears, but his silence seemed to me a sign of failure for this marriage, the abrupt union of two strangers, who even with time and two children–one in this world and one in the other–had still not grown much closer. The short courtship and the even shorter visits after marriage had not made them really familiar with each other. The señora did not know him well enough, nor he her. He was still learning his role now, and she hers, and perhaps neither of them imagined that this test would arrive to transform them from a newly joined pair to the parents of a dead child.

The novel is peppered with this kind of wisdom, but, alas, it’s dominated by passages that strike me merely as unreflective. “Odette died when Wilner died,” one character remarks of a woman whose lover is shot. “They killed her when they killed him.” That’s practically a line from a protest song; in fact, Odette drowned–or else she was accidentally suffocated by Désir herself. “I saw a stillness in her eyes similar to the dead boy’s face,” Désir says of Señora Valencia, “something like the shadow of a lost dream entering and leaving through her vacant stare.” The word “dream” is already pushing it here–clearly it’s a thought that’s passing through Señora Valencia’s mind–but “shadow of a lost dream” is like the negative of a negated negation. It doesn’t really mean anything.

Such passages seem automatic, and serve to efface Danticat’s characters with historical or fictional generality rather than break them out as individuals. But the most effaced or obscured character in the book is Amabelle Désir herself. Despite all she witnesses she remains a cipher. To some degree this strikes me as intentional: the woman is clearly shell-shocked by the two shaping events of her life, her parents’ drowning and her own near-murder. But if it is shell shock, it isn’t felt by the reader, but merely implied by the writer. Indeed, Désir seems to lead a full if obviously scarred life after the massacre; but this life is presented in dry details that tell us little more than the fact that seeing your parents drown and your people slaughtered will leave you angry, scared, and sad. That should have been this novel’s premise, not its conclusion. Still, the fire which occasionally bursts from Danticat’s pen suggests that there is still much to expect from this writer. Take, for example, this passage, when Désir comments on a character’s dying word, the Kreyòl word for “parsley” (pèsi), whose Spanish version (perejil) is difficult for Haitian tongues to pronounce, and which many Dominicans used to distinguish their neighbors from themselves:

    The generalissimo’s mind was surely as dark as death, but if he had heard Odette’s “pèsi,” it might have startled him, not the tears and supplications he would have expected, no shriek from unbound fear, but a provocation, a challenge, a dare. To the devil with your world, your grass, your wind, your water, your air, your words. You ask for perejil, I give you more.

Here is passion, fire, hatred, real protest; here is that elusive, novelistic “more”–which leaves Danticat’s readers wanting more writing like this.