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Book Review: Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker

by anna battista

Edwidge Danticat was born in 1969 in Haiti, where she lived with her aunt till the age of 12 when she left her native country for the States, to reach her parents. The contrast between her background and the American culture must have been strong in her life. Indeed, this is often a recurring theme in her works. In the collection of short stories Krik? Krak! (1995) and in her two acclaimed novels, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) and The Farming of Bones (1998), Danticat explored the world of Haiti, of its history, its children, often immigrants and expatriates, and of their sufferings. The Farming of Bones dealt with a theme particularly important to Haiti, the purity of race: its background was the massacre of the Creole minority ordered in 1937 by the Dominican dictator in Haiti, a massacre that resulted in the murder of 40,000 Haitians. For her new novel, The Dew Breaker (Abacus), Danticat has gone back to Haiti, and to a particular point in time, 1981, the year she left the country and the year when her birthplace was under the dictatorship of President François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier and his Tonton Macoutes (Créole for "Bogeyman").

The novel starts as a disjointed story, a sequence of tales, some longer some shorter, all told in different voices by different characters. At the end of the book, these puzzle-like stories form the portrait of the man of the title, a government torturer (the definition "dew breaker" is explained by one of the characters in the novel, "We called them shoukèt laroze…They'd break into your house. Mostly it was at night. But often they'd also come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they'd take you away."). The man ran away from Haiti and now lives in New York and works as a barber. At the beginning of the novel, he reveals his true identity to his daughter who always thought the scar his father wears on his face was inflicted upon him when he was tortured in prison. The stories of the people who suffered at the hands of the dew breaker follow: among them there are also a nurse, a young man who goes back to Haiti to tell his aunt he's found the murderer of his family, a bridal seamstress who's retiring and a funeral singer trying to fit in the States and to learn the language after fleeing from Haiti for having refused to sing at the national palace. In the last chapter, a climax of fear, horror and pain, the author resolves the plots left open throughout the book, making the readers witness the dew breaker's last murder and discover how he escaped to the States.

In this novel, suspended between a history book and Graham Greene's The Comedians, and told by the author in her impeccable style, tales, traditions and memories, mix with the grim reality of Haitian history and of the expatriates' new American lives. The Dew Breaker is probably Edwidge Danticat's most haunting novel.


Issue 24, June 2004

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