What’s the worst thing you could find out about your father? Everyone has had that moment, the moment when you realize that your parents are not superhuman. In The Dew Breaker, Edwidge Danticat slowly reveals how one daughter’s father was once less than human, and how he regains some sense of humanity while always being haunted by his past.
In the first chapter of Danticat’s third novel, which reads at first like a short story collection, a young woman finds out that her father was one of the infamous “dew breakers,” thugs who arrested, tortured, and killed dissidents under the regime of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Previously, this young woman, an artist, had been convinced that her father was a prison inmate in Haiti for a year, and had been compelled by her respect and pity for him to sculpt him repeatedly in positions of powerlessness. The rest of the novel explores intersecting lives in Haitian communities both in the United States and in Haiti that were somehow touched by the work of this man. Some of the characters are quite far separated from the man himself, and so patience is necessary when reading each individual chapter, but the dénouement, in which the threads all come together to make a tightly woven, powerful impact, makes the whole thing worth it.
This man, this “dew breaker,” has touched many people. He is a man who has dealt out both pain and love with a simple handshake. His story illustrates the impact that tragic events that a community shares together can have on the individuals in that community and the interactions of those individuals. The narrative runs through the lives of the people who he has come into contact with, from close relatives to people so separated from him they do not even know how he has affected their lives. Some of the chapters seem at first glance to have little relevance to the novel as a whole, which I suppose is why some reviewers insist on calling it a book of short stories. I double checked the Knopf website for some clarification on just how they categorized it, and they cleverly refer to it as a “work of fiction” and a “book,” never really placing it in either the short story or the novel genre. One reviewer even called the winding narrative “frustrating,” but that’s really unfair and untrue, because there is a big payoff at the end when all of the parts come together to make a resonant, potent whole. The life of the dew breaker is more than one life, and so his story must include many other stories: stories of people he has loved, stories of people he has killed, and stories of people he doesn’t even know he has met.
Danticat plays with the brutal truth by hinting at it and then stepping back and reeling it in, over and over. The style of the novel is reminiscent of its cover art – a young girl swimming in a vast ocean. Waves of comprehension wash over the reader, who is mostly swimming in calm waters but can see the clouds forming overhead. In the final chapter, the storm arrives, tossing the reader ashore and soaking her with rain from the ever-darkening sky. As she watches the thunder and lightning play, she is both afraid and mesmerized. The novel leaves her both exhausted and refreshed, safe in the knowledge that the storm is over but both alarmed and astounded by what she saw during the storm. The Dew Breaker is a remarkable novel, and one that will weather many storms.