The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat ’93 MFA (Knopf).
The verb to love is far more flexible than most of us will ever know. At the outset of Edwidge Danticat’s new novel, The Dew Breaker, a young Haitian woman learns that her father, whom she always believed to be a victim of the Duvalier dictatorships, was actually a macoute, a torturer. The hunter, not the prey.
“And those nightmares you were always having, what were they?” she asks.
“Of what I … your father, did to others.”
“Does Manman know?” the daughter asks—how could her mother love a man who did these things?
“Yes … I explained, after you were born.” He tries to reassure her:“Ka, no matter what, I’m still your father. Still your mother’s husband. I would never do those things now.”
The Dew Breaker takes its title from the Creole phrase shoukèt laroze, which refers to the local chiefs who dragged their victims from their beds and either murdered them outright or tormented them in Haiti’s notorious prisons. The phrase, like the novel, conjures up images of both serenity and violence, beauty and ugliness.
The Dew Breaker probes the complex nature of guilt with the delicacy and precision of a dentist’s pick. Waiting for her father, Ka sits in a nonsmoking Florida hotel room, lighting one mentholated cigarette after another. A teenager is deported to Haiti, where his loving extended family embraces him; we then learn that he’d earlier murdered his father in a fit of fury. A Haitian preacher rages from the pulpit at the passivity Christian faith breeds in his impoverished flock. Beaten and thrown into jail, he awakens to find his wounds stinging as other prisoners urinate on him in a ritual cure.
At the center of all this is Ka’s father, the dew breaker, who, having shot to death his last prisoner, flees to New York City, marries, and dissolves his old sadistic self into the identity of a barber and a father. He spends his free time at the Brooklyn Museum, bringing his daughter along as he studies ancient Egyptian artifacts and considers the fate of his heart. The Egyptians, he tells his daughter, believed that a heart weighted down by evil deeds would be too heavy to pass the Judgment of the Dead. He has named his daughter Ka, after the body double the ancient Egyptians be-lieved would follow a soul through life and into the afterlife. “Ti bon anj,” he calls her in Creole—“good angel.”
Like guilt, the novel is complex. Danticat writes with economy and grace, letting each seemingly unconnected chapter fall, petal by petal, to reveal a little about some person or other in the dew breaker’s world. A bride emigrates from Haiti to Brooklyn to join her husband in the apartment he shares with two other men in the basement of a barber. A man who in childhood witnessed his parents’ death in a shower of bullets recognizes the neighborhood barber as their murderer.
The Dew Breaker’s structure can be hard to follow—it requires rereading at times—but it rewards that effort. As each elegant piece slips into place, relationships come into focus and plot lines form. The whole that emerges, finally, is not unlike the broken Egyptian statues that the barber studies so assiduously: we are all flawed, Danticat seems to be saying, and the weight of our guilt, finally, is not ours to judge.
Perhaps the best any of us can hope for is a Ka, a good angel, to love and so to lessen the burden of our sins.
Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.