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.