The Dew Breaker

by Edwidge Danticat

Published by Knopf

244 pages, 2004

Buy it online



Haitian Deception

Reviewed by Nicole Moses


With her latest novel, Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat continues to shed light on the complicated sociopolitical climate of her homeland. Using subject matter so startlingly timely, it often seems pulled from current headlines, the critically acclaimed and award-winning author goes behind-the-scenes and into the souls of fictional individuals affected by Haiti's very real political corruption and tumultuous violence. Unfortunately, that violence continues well into 2004, even as the country celebrates its 200th year of independence.

Like Danticat's other books, The Dew Breaker details the Haitian experience -- including emigration and the culture shock that accompanies it -- educating those who may be unaware of Haitian culture. This time around, however, instead of focusing on women, Danticat writes mostly about men as she weaves the prominent theme of deception, as well as the themes of confusion, remorse, love and forgiveness throughout.

Set during various time periods in Florida, New York and Haiti, Danticat's story of pain and perseverance follows the lives of several people linked together by the common thread of their Haitian descent. Among the many characters introduced are a former regime member and murderer who, because of his past crimes, is fearful of being recognized; his potentially insane and epileptic wife, Anne and his atheistic daughter, Ka who is sarcastic and cynical due to a life with repressive and isolated parents. We also meet some of the murderer's victims: a young man he turns into an orphan who, unbeknownst to him, lives in a rented room in his basement; a bridal seamstress who lives just down the street whom he once tortures and continues to torment by literally tracking her every move; and a preacher he murders, who is survived by his half-sister who happens to be Anne.

The story begins in Lakeland, Florida in a hotel office where Ka has convened with the manager and a police officer to discuss her father's disappearance. The two had been on their way to Tampa to deliver one of Ka's sculptures to a television star and had stopped at the hotel the night before to rest. But the next morning, both Ka's father and her sculpture are missing. By the close of the first chapter, however, the mystery is solved (in more ways than one) when an astonishing confession sets the pace for the entire novel, laying the groundwork for a story replete with deception and lies.

In fact, deception is the underlying theme throughout the book. From the cover art to the title to the very actions of nearly every character, nothing is what it seems. The cover photo, for example, portrays an individual with only their head above the surface of a calm, vast body of water. It seems to suggest a story of peacefulness and tranquility when, in actuality, the majority of the book's subject matter is rough and distressing.

The title is taken from the Creole shoukét laroze, a term that once meant "brutal regional leader and occasional torturer." So, on the one hand, even the title is deceptive because, even though more harsh translations exist, it's been specifically translated into the most serene-sounding English possible. On the other hand, it's also very fitting since it describes one of the men in the book as well as what this person, and others like him, is all about: "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." As for the book's characters, every single major player (and many of the secondary ones as well) deceive someone about something at some point in the novel -- whether it's themselves or somebody else.

Even the way the story unfolds is tricky. It begins like any regular novel, yet the more you read, the more you realize there's nothing regular about it. New characters and storylines are continuously introduced, there's non-linear movement between the past and the present, there's jumping from one geographical location to another, and constant alternation between first and third person viewpoints. Plus, just when you think the new storylines are independent of the others, you discover that they're actually indirectly related; but not completely connected.

Perhaps the interlocking storylines are representative of the intricate network of Haitian-American communities that exist, where everyone seems to be linked by six degrees of separation. And maybe Danticat's non-chronological and agitated organizational technique is her way of demonstrating the complexity and edginess so often associated with Haiti and its people. Whatever the case, while she succeeds at creating anticipation between chapters, she also makes the story that much more difficult to follow.

Confusion is another theme prevalent in The Dew Breaker. In the main storyline, Ka experiences great confusion regarding her father's actions. For example, in the concluding chapter, the dew breaker's final victim -- demoralized and confused -- mistakenly brings about his own death. In this same chapter, the concepts of remorse, love and forgiveness are also explored when the dew breaker's victim -- through his death -- transforms his attacker forever.

These same ideas are also discussed in yet another storyline. In the fifth chapter, a young two-time expatriate feels remorse after killing his father and is ultimately forgiven and embraced by his kin. The importance of forgiveness is also addressed in the main storyline when Ka must decide if, and how, she will forgive her parents: her father -- for his concealments as well as his revelations and her mother -- for her complicity.

In all, The Dew Breaker is an excellent novel filled with intriguing and lifelike characters. Even characters that are present for just a paragraph, a page or a chapter manage to leave a lasting impression. The authenticity of these individuals is a true testament to Danticat's talent as an interpretive, articulate and socially conscious writer. | April 2004


Nicole Moses is an author, a poet and a songstress. Devouring books and expressing herself creatively through words are her true passions in life. She lives in Montreal, Canada with her fiancé, James, and a scraggly monkey named Homegrown.