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by Edwige Danticat, ed.
Akashic, December 2010
309 pages
ISBN: 1936070650

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Crime fiction readers know that the genre can embrace a world of literary styles and tones within its seemingly formulaic exploration of crime and justice. Akashic has added geospatial coordinates, publishing collections of stories that provide imaginative maps to communities around the world. In this volume, Edwidge Danticat, an immensely talented writer, has tapped writers in Haiti, in the Haitian diaspora, and some who are not Haitian but have a strong connection to the country, to compile a wonderful addition to the series, one which (as she points out in her wise introduction) offers new shades of meaning to the word "noir."

The collection opens in the recent past. Patrick Sylvain describes the disorientation and destruction of the earthquake of 2010 as an elderly woman, Odette, tries to adjust to a life literally turned upside down. In Paradise Inn, Kettly Mars takes us to an eerie hostelry where unwanted political rivals are sent and the guests, once checked in, stay forever. In Madison Smart Bell's story, Twenty Dollars, one American character tells another "What I love about this country is that magical thinking actually does work here."

If you had any preconceptions about Haiti, chances are this collection will confound them. Some of the stories describe the everyday hardships and social dislocation created by poverty. Danticat's own contribution is a disturbing story that starts with a rogue wave that sweeps a fisherman off the shore on a girl's seventh birthday. Her years are counted backward to her birth, telling an all-too common story of a family that cannot afford to remain together.

Taken as a whole, the stories mix humor and tragedy, lyricism and earthiness. Mark Kurlansky's The Leopard of Ti Morne does all of this. It features a gullible Izzy Goldstein who, though he's a Miami Jew, thinks he's spiritually a Haitian and is easily hoodwinked by crooks. Though the final scene is laugh-out-loud funny, the story also includes an interpolated folktale about African animals left behind when Haiti separated from its homeland, and a caged leopard whose freedom is finally ransomed. "The animal ran and ran and ran, as though he could run all the way back to Africa. But the ocean was there now. He ran so hard that he turned into a man. That was the first Haitian, and that is why Haitian people always struggle to be free."

The final story, by Rodney Saint-Eloi, reads at times like pages from the Book of Revelations mixed into dystopian science fiction. A toxic mountain of waste has been deposited in Haiti, poisoning the people who are powerless before a foreign invasion. A policeman wonders how to warn his people of the danger. His visions are poetic, violent, and apocalyptic. "The agony of the earth is beginning today . . . The trumpets are sounding for the most beautiful women, the bravest men, the gentlest children. The trumpets bore through your ears, drill into your insides." The story ends as he turns to look at a clock. It's 4:35 p.m. which, as Wikipedia will remind you, is the moment when the earthquake struck.

What is remarkable about this collection is that, in between two stories of natural and unnatural disaster, there is a whole range of experiences told in a chorus of voices that, like the best of international crime fiction, reminds us that this adaptable and inclusive genre is even more varied and generous than we ever imagined.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, March 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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