The Dew Breaker
256 pp., $22.00
Reviewed by Elissa Elliott
How Do You Live with a Torturer?
There are rare moments in the publishing world when a young author pens a novel so astonishingly wise and insightful, it quite takes our breath away. Edwidge Danticat, a National Book Award-nominee and acclaimed author of Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!, is one of those authors.
The title of her new novel, The Dew Breaker, refers to a man who was a torturer in the Tonton Macoutes, the personal police force of the father-son dictators in Haiti, François "Papa Doc" and Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, during the period from 1957 to 1986. The term "dew breaker" is a loose translation of a Creole expression, shoukèt laroze, an oddly lyrical epithet. The torturers would oftentimes steal into peoples' homes before dawn, breaking the morning dew on the leaves as they came to seize their victims—men from whom they wanted land, women who had refused their flirtations, or anyone who was seen as dangerously subversive.
We first meet the dew breaker as an older man, a barber, traveling with his only daughter from New York to Tampa to help her deliver a sculpture to a popular Haitian-American actress. The sculpture is of himself, in three-foot mahogany—naked, kneeling, and hunchbacked, as his daughter has imagined him in prison. But on this trip, for the first time, he tells her he never was in prison. Instead, the pitted scar on his face was given him by his last prisoner. "You see, Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey."
Later, back in the hotel room, she phones her mother and whispers into the receiver, "Manman, how do you love him?" She doesn't know the entire truth, and neither do we, until the book's surprising and powerful denouement.
although the dew breaker (who is never named) is at the center of the novel, it is more about his family members, neighbors, and victims. The novel unfolds much like a book about a famous painting, where we are given small sections to view, in sequence, until we near the end when the final piece is revealed in all its grandeur. We make connections, and the full work seems complete and satisfying. It's the negative space of the book, the personal stories of the people who surround the dew breaker that illuminate the dew breaker's character, as if we see his person more brightly with each victim's telling.
In clear and precise prose, Danticat moves easily from present-day Brooklyn and Queens to dictatorial Haiti in the 1960s to Manhattan in the '70s and back again. She plunges into the lives of her characters—neighbors of the dew breaker, an RN, a restaurant owner, a bridal seamstress, a man who talks in his sleep, a funeral singer—in a painful reckoning with the past. In the words of Anne, the dew breaker's wife, "There was no way to escape this dread anymore, this pendulum between regret and forgiveness." It is as though we, too, are victims, compelled to recognize that we cannot easily escape our own sins and the tangential consequences of actions long ago.
Danticat shines when telling immigrant stories. She pinpoints the insular caution of life in a new place, the fear of venturing out into the busy unknown, and the final emerging into a society that is jumbled and variant. She writes from experience—from a knowing, distant place where she can observe the nuances of both the old and the new. When Danticat was two, her father left Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to attempt a better life in the United States. Her mother joined him two years later, leaving Danticat with an aunt and uncle in Haiti. When Danticat turned 12, she rejoined her parents in New York, speaking only French and Creole. She went on to graduate from Barnard College with a degree in French literature and a master's degree in fine arts from Brown University. Her first literary influences, she says, were the stories and folktales of her grandmothers and aunts, then other Haitian writers, and finally the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Jamaica Kincaid.
When Danticat is asked in interviews if she sees herself as the voice of Haiti, she protests by saying that she is one of many, and that her greatest hope is that she has made the reader curious about Haiti. She succeeds. In the end, we're hungry to know more about this country fresh on our television screens, still mired in poverty and political quagmire. We want to know more than the news can ever provide. We want more of the truth that can only be told in fiction.
Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota.
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An excerpt and more information about the author are available from the publisher.