Ripped From the Headlines, A Sad, True Novel About Haiti

The Dew Breaker , by Edwidge Danticat. Alfred A. Knopf, 244 pages, $22.

Only a few hours away by luxury jet lies an island paradise of palm trees and warm sand where the air itself feels forgiving. Lovely chocolate-skinned women wear pink nightgowns, jacarandas grow wild and the customary old-fashioned way to say “You’re welcome” is to say “You’re deserving.” It’s a charmed place where “the rain is sweeter, the dust is lighter,” and the clouds in the sky are said to be caused by dear, departed relatives eating coconuts with God. Eating Coconuts with God , in fact, wouldn’t be a bad title for a lighthearted book about such a quaintly blessed place. Except there’s a hitch: Bloodshed is rampant.

And so the title of Edwidge Danticat’s new novel about Haiti is not Eating Coconuts with God , but rather The Dew Breaker ; it’s named for the central character, a professional government torturer whose M.O. was to “break into your house … before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves.” He’d break the dew, then systematically break your bones.

Recent news photos from this island are notable mostly for the numbing sense of déjà vu they engender in the viewer. Chrome guns gleam in black hands, frenzied crowds jubilate in the streets by stomping the heads of political opponents, an air of grim festivity pervades, like a World Series victory celebration gone mad. Haiti is again aswirl with wide-smiling violence; the air that should reek of bougainvillea is once more perfumed with gunpowder.

In prose as supple and deadpan as the tropical landscape she describes, Ms. Danticat colors in the blanks behind the headlines. A pot-bellied police officer smells “like fried eggs and gasoline, like breakfast at the Amoco.” Traumatized victims gibber in their sleep, wetting their beds “not with urine but with words.” Innocent bystanders tend “to be silent a moment too long during an important conversation and then say too much.” Others simply go bananas, like the father who manifests his insanity by “walking naked to the marketplace twice a week, clutching a rock in each fist.” Yet life, perforce, goes on. Here’s ordinary daily sexual yearning, as felt by a husband for a wife who has finally come from Haiti to join him in his rented American basement room after a separation of years: “She smelled good, a mixture of lavender and lime. He simply wanted to get her home, if home it was … and to reduce the space between them until there was no air for her to breathe that he was not breathing too.”

Ms. Danticat has set herself a sacred mission: to give weight and dignity to those whose grainy faces we glimpse between sips of our morning coffee, “men and women whose tremendous agonies filled every blank space in their lives.” She writes about them in a voice that’s so surprisingly flat as to be almost inert, as though run through a wringer.

Each chapter features a different character, nearer to or farther from the heart of darkness-violence engulfs even those distant from the epicenter. The reader needs to be something of a locksmith to fit the pieces together. “It’s like a puzzle, a weird-ass kind of puzzle, man,” one of the characters remarks, and you won’t master all the connections until the closing pages, when it clicks into place with the aha of satisfaction. But the satisfaction is a hurtful one, radiating as it does from the central character, the eponymous dew breaker, who claims the final chapter for himself.

“One of hundreds who had done their jobs so well that their victims were never able to speak of them again,” this torturer is not a nice fellow. “He liked questioning the prisoners, teaching them to play zo and bezik, stapling clothespins to their ears as they lost and removing them as he let them win, convincing them that their false victories would save their lives. He liked to paddle them with braided cowhide, stand on their cracking backs and jump up and down like a drunk on a trampoline, pound a rock on the protruding bone behind their earlobes until they couldn’t hear the orders he was shouting at them, tie blocks of concrete to the end of sisal ropes and balance them off their testicles if they were men or their breasts if they were women.” Perhaps the ultimate unforgivable injustice he commits is this: “He’d wound you, then try to soothe you with words, then he’d wound you again. He thought he was God.”

Yet it’s the singular achievement of this novel to make us feel bad for the bad guy. Who can be privy to his rationalizations and guilt, his familial love and childhood dreams, without acknowledging that even he-especially he-has within him the seeds of redemption? “You and me, we save him,” his wife tells his daughter, when she learns the truth. “When I meet him, it made him stop hurt the people. This how I see it. He a seed thrown in rock. You, me, we make him take root.”

The wistful contends with the brutish. The ghastliest atrocities-facial scalping “where skin was removed from dead victims’ faces to render them unidentifiable,” whipping the soles of the feet till they bleed, making casual foes drink a gallon of gas and then lighting a match-are counterbalanced by paeans to human beauty: eyes that are “chartreuse” or “velvet-brown,” skin that is “the color of sorrel” or “silken and very black, her few wrinkles … more like beauty marks than signs of old age.” Or this: “Beatrice threw her head back and let out an earsplitting laugh, contorting her face in such a way that her skin, had it been cloth, would have taken hours to iron out.”

These details are delivered languidly, leaf by leaf, as it were, like the leaves falling from the green ash trees, “shaking ever so slightly in the afternoon breeze … seemingly suspended in the air, then falling ever so slowly as if cushioned by air bubbles.” As they accumulate-the details of beauty no less inexorably than the details of torture-they acquire the specific gravity of truth.

Here we learn exactly what it feels like to inhabit a body that is no longer your own: “The preacher was thrown in the back of a truck. A group of Miliciens piled on top of him. He raised his feet close to his chest as they shoved him from side to side, pounding rifle butts on random parts of his body. His face was now pressed against the metal undulations of the truck bed, boot soles and heels raining down on him, cigarette butts being put out in his hair, which sizzled and popped like tiny grains of rock salt in an open fire …. Someone dragged him by the legs, pulled him forward, removing his jacket, and then he felt himself falling from the back of the truck onto the concrete. He fell on his face, crushing his forehead. His blood quickly soaked the blindfold, a warm veil of red covering the darkness over his eyes. He was being dragged by the legs over the rise of a curb. With each yank forward, a little bit of him was bruised, peeled away. He felt as though he was shedding skin, shedding voice, shedding sight, shedding everything he’d tried so hard to make himself into, a well-dressed man, a well-spoken man, a well-read man. He was leaving all that behind now with bits of his flesh in the ground, morsel by morsel being scraped off by pebbles, rocks, tiny bottle shards and cracks in the concrete.”

In one of those odd quirks of human convergence, Jackie Onassis, diminutively disembarking a queen-sized yacht one day back in the 1970’s, apparently made a vivid impression on the natives of Haiti. They liked her style. They liked her pink Bermuda shorts and her wide-rimmed sunglasses. Most of all, they liked her grace: “She lost her husband and two babies, yet she remained so beautiful. She made sadness beautiful.”

With her grace and her imperishable humanity, her devotion to lives lived like “a pendulum between forgiveness and regret,” Edwidge Danticat is every bit Jackie’s equal. About her, too, it can be said: She makes sadness beautiful.

Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer .