The Farming Of Bones

Dan Cryer reviews 'The Farming of Bones' by Edwidge Danticat

Published August 31, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Pity the young novelist surfing the wave of novelty and hype. Sooner or later, she's going to wipe out. Although Edwidge Danticat has written only a so-so first novel ("Breath, Eyes, Memory") and a modest story collection ("Krik? Krak!"), given all the hoopla, you'd think she was Haiti's great gift to American literature. A prized seat among the literati-in-waiting of Granta magazine's 20 Best Young American Novelists and a National Book Award nomination for "Krik? Krak!" Oh, please! Has anyone actually read these books?

The Haitian folk tradition that Danticat brings to the literary table has a certain fascination -- the tangled knot of family connections, the everyday presence of fearsome or whimsical divinities, the overwhelming sense of life's fragility. To this, she adds a contemporary overlay of feminist indignation and political protest. But her plots, alas, are predictable and occasionally static. Her style is as often overwrought as it is pleasingly lyrical. And she can be as preachy and sentimental as Alice Walker at her most embarrassing.

In the history of Danticat's birthplace, the hemisphere's poorest country, it's not only the Yanqui imperialist who has served as villain. The U.S. Army may have stormed in periodically to depose one ruler and install another, but unlike Haiti's next-door neighbor, the Dominican Republic, it hasn't subjected the island to genocidal fury. At the heart of Danticat's new novel, "The Farming of Bones," is a little-known massacre ordered by the despot Rafael Trujillo in 1937. Thousands of desperately poor Haitians, lured across the border to work the sugar cane fields, became victims of bloodthirsty Dominican nationalists. "When you stay too long at a neighbor's house," one Haitian observes, "it's only natural that he become weary of you and hate you."

Danticat is so eager to pay tribute to these unsung victims that she neglects to portray any real people. Her characters are mere monuments to remembrance. Amabelle Desir, servant to well-to-do Dominicans, is little more than a gritty survivor (her parents drowned years ago in the same river where the massacre takes place). She and her lover, cane cutter Sebastien Onius, are depicted in such broad, all-purpose strokes that it's hard to care, except in the most abstract way, when they flee for their lives toward Haiti. They are hard-working, brave, resourceful -- and utterly forgettable. Minor characters fill required roles wearing the husk of stereotype: the hateful Dominican military officer, his naive wife, the kindly Dominican who warns Amabelle of danger ahead.

This is by far Danticat's longest book, and the stretch shows. Her strategy of keeping the horrors at a distance (or in Amabelle's memories of childhood) slackens the pace and makes a reader uncertain about what's really going on. (Unlike the Holocaust, these are not such familiar historical events that avoiding direct description can actually heighten the tension.) Given the life-or-death excitements looming in the background, the book's longueurs are inexcusable. Oddly enough, by slowing things down for a loving -- and uncritical -- evocation of culture and community, Danticat has robbed her book of vitality. Only 29, Danticat has plenty of time to achieve her considerable potential. But overpraising her work won't help her get there.

By Dan Cryer

Dan Cryer is a book critic for Newsday.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------