Reader’s Recommendation: The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat

I don’t want to spoil this novel, so even broad strokes are best kept to avoid spoilers. But the unfolding nature of this novel is a thing of beauty. While studying I found similar styled contemporary novels telling ugly and straightforward stories we hear often about duplicitous husbands and abuse cycles. Danticat is an author of a different calibre. She offers unique accounts that don’t give you a sermon, but an experience. I loved this novel. I expected it frankly to be syrupy nonsense just going from how it was advertised, and I was very glad to have been wrong.

To give a brief impression, The Dew Breaker is a modern novel showing the perspectives of immigrants before and after periods of transition. The order of these inciting incidents, life in what country, and exact details are presented in a deliberately chaotic fashion, with attention given to the realities of life more than politics. Danticat writes about this series of characters the same way another would write a solider, a life writer discussing their experiences; in short focused upon the lifestyle and emotions of mundane life. The potential horror, struggle, or comfort is faced in the same way that all human beings have a talent for. As we live through strife, there is no excessive melodrama. No dramatic ironies or romances.

Often 21st century novels like to play with time, to deliver a twist or work with parallel arcs, matching a character in the past with one in the present. Despite being the same individual, the circumstances and nature of their personality can often be radically different. One can become lost in themselves, the reader seeing the distinct divide in character with the benefit of their omniscient perspective. The Dew Breaker travels from the perspective of several characters, exposing the reader to their lives without signposting, leaving the audience to work out the possibility of any mystery or experience for themselves. I believe the novel works because until the end, these separate sections hold up as slice-of-life narratives when taken as separate novellas, the situation is easy to join because confusion and an emerging sense of explanation is a consistent theme for each character story. It’s like writing an account of different days in a family’s given life, engaging in the quality of writing, the entertainment of the day or the uncertainty of what each situation brings.

A modern novel of this nature lives and dies based upon the quality of the writing, and The Dew Breaker has appeal the same way a well detailed painting has quality. Were it a political treatise, many would find it tiresome. If the emotional struggles were exaggerated into seeming inhuman, the slice-of-life quality would not be an advantage. Danticat’s skill lies in keeping the reader immersed in the mundane from an unusual perspective, reeling us in from a relatively benign opener into a series of very unusual circumstances. There are no points where the author speaks to the reader, a judgement is given, or the focus is removed from the sensations and actions of the characters the writing surrounds. The life of the first character opens into other contextual experiences, the story being like other family tales or sagas where the audience wonders which point was the beginning, what ties the protagonists together, and how human beings experience life as comfortable scenarios that are constantly layered with revelation and charged with accountability and self-reflection.

The Dew Breaker’s lack of gimmicks make for enjoyable reading without a caveat. Prose is prose, and the lack of tricks ironically make for an engaging read in a contemporary market saturated with novels that would profit without deliberately exaggerated shock. Rather than another polemic against aspects of the social order with a single obvious source of evil to describe and destroy, Danticat presents the ramifications of human beings unable or unwilling to understand each other, understanding leading both character and reader to consider the shift in the world and how one is affected by the social system often before a change is made apparent or they discuss change with another person. Assignment of blame does not take place, nor is the audience even encouraged to do so.

Much like watching people go about their day as we walk through town, go on holiday, or change our situation, The Dew Breaker was a novel I found very beneficial in seeing a perspective of people much like those I know. Unwilling to open up, unable to adapt to our multifaceted, antagonistic and difficult to understand compilation of cultures. Showing evil in the form of atrocity and monstrosity is commonplace. Far more effective is finding yourself empathising with someone struggling to comprehend aspects of society you have been raised with since childhood. There is a more uncomfortable evil in a perfectly content person suckling from the corrupt system, immersed, unrepentant, but human to the same degree as a business salesman or journalist with a thought process not unlike anyone else.

This novel is best appreciated after finishing the whole thing, and I will be honest about the reading experience to avoid people giving up or misunderstanding it. To be clear; the final section binds the story together. It is by far the most emotionally gripping area, although the middle section I found very evocative for its own reasons. The novel itself can be, but does not really work well when taken as a mystery, many people I knew who read this alongside me robbed themselves I think of a little enjoyment in trying to figure how the different pieces came together. They do in a satisfying, entirely unexpected fashion. And something I enjoy far more than the common ‘wham line’ or inconclusive ending that suffers from an abrupt ending. Each section gathers more interest and gives the reader more to contemplate with a direct correlation. The finale is the culmination of that, almost a novella length section that serves as a grand finale and re-contextualisation of the entire story.

I find there is no reading quite like the first one, if The Dew Breaker sounds interesting to you then would personally suggest engaging with the novel purely based on prose without expectations or checking blurbs and reviews. The Dew Breaker definitely benefits from repeat viewings, but this is one of the books I genuinely see as a surprising and gripping first read. And this comes from a reader who finds most books are not shocking, or differ greatly from the initial experience to a second reading (although repeated readings are something very much enjoyed).

While reading The Dew Breaker I knew some people skipped directly to the end, and others gave up before that last part. Both experiences really missed out on the good in this book. I would recommend reading it through, one section at a time which is clearly presented even if I don’t remember if there were specific pages or chapters working as signposts. The ability to write any slice-of-life multicultural story is interesting, but to place three -by my estimation- tonally different stories together into an engaging novel is a very impressive achievement.

Perception and character, the woe and awful things humans commit, our lives being large pieces people see like different facets of crystal, this makes up The Dew Breaker. The style of firm realism and I will warn you there’s a fair bit of villainous brutality at the end, but if you like surprises then I heartily recommend this Haitian novel.

All the best, I hope you enjoy these as much as I do writing them for you all.
J.W.H. Hobbs

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