Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Race, rage, redemption - and pirates

Take One Candle Light a Room

by Susan Straight

Pantheon Books

“You a lie!” someone yells in the opening chapters of this powerful book about family ties, the notion of home and one woman’s search for redemption . And in many ways, Fantine Antoine, successful travel writer and narrator of this book, does feel like one. Secretive about her origins, camouflaged by a skin tone that confuses most people about her racial lineage, she makes her home among strangers, distancing herself from her roots with education and a lifestyle her family can neither comprehend nor appreciate.

For Fantine's family is bound by ties far stronger than blood – they are brought together by the shared trauma of rape, decades of racial prejudice and violence, and the insularity that comes from being unable to trust anyone outside of their tribe. But though to outward glance she has walked away from it all, she still wears the scars of her heritage close, in her inability to commit to relationships, in the distance she must necessarily keep even from those closest to her.

All this changes, however, when her godson, the academically gifted Victor – and the one family member who seems to be following in her footsteps - becomes involved in a random act of gang violence. As she races against time to reach him and save him from the dark future that claims so many young black men of his generation, Fantine finds herself reconnecting with her estranged family and confronting, at last, the memories and dark secrets she has tried to leave behind. After years of being ‘invisible’ in her neutral complexion, carefully chosen clothes and the privileges her job offers, Fantine discovers, as she drives across America with her father, the reality of being black , when even an act as innocent as driving at night comes fraught with danger. “You just a nigger,”, her father says, a man who has survived great violence and meted out his version of it. “You not a writer. You with me.You tite souri (mouse). For them.” And sure enough, despite her laptop and vocabulary, she is mistaken for a prostitute (“a low-rent Halle Berry”) by a passing white couple and duly propositioned.

As a writer Straight is known for her extraordinary ear for dialogue, and ‘Take One Candle..’ moves effortlessly between patois , street jargon and Fantine’s articulate, writerly voice. ( ‘You made me fall in love,’ a professor tells her, after reading her work. ) Through the anguished inner voice of her protagonist, and the stories of the resilient men and women who came before her, Straight does even more. In an essay I read a while ago,about Haitians who dared raise their voice against political oppression, writer Edwidge Danticat defines ‘ guapa’ - the ‘courageous beauty’ she sees in the actions of these artists, writers and activists. With ‘Take One Candle..’ Straight gives us a glimpse of hers, returning to issues she has so eloquently examined in her earlier books – race; prejudice; the burden of painful cultural memory and its crippling effects across generations; the weight of love, often as damaging as it is redemptive.

At the heart of this book is the relationship Fantine shares with Victor - complex, fraught with tension, laced as much with a frail resentment as it is affection. In many ways, it springs to life only when she realizes she may lose him. Until the moment this happens, you can sense a diffidence on her part to bridge the gap she keeps between them, and his own pained , but silent acceptance of it. She brings him gifts, expensive mementos from the places she visits, yet is unable to offer him shelter the one night he needs it the most. For, much as he is like her, Victor is still a painful reminder of the past for Fantine – his doomed mother was once her best friend, the secrets of his parents’ death her unshed burden. Growing up, Victor has survived abuse and severe deprivation, scraping by only because of the largesse of the clan. Fantine, black sheep of this family, has rarely stepped in to help him; yet, she notes, as much with pride as regret, she seems to be the person he wants most to emulate. “People like us were not meant to measure success in the same way our families did,” Fantine observes. "We were failures to them.. And now Victor wanted… to be me.” But what they do have in common is a love of words, and it is this love that forges the tenuous bond that keeps Fantine on Victor’s tracks as he hurtles across America towards his doom, with little more than his cellphone in hand.

Fantine does eventually catch up with Victor, only to lose him again when he inexplicably starts behaving like the boys he has been trying to escape till now, and sets out on a hair brained treasure hunt of his own. Given how gripping the story has been till this point, and how drawn I was into Fantine's world, Victor's volte face made no sense whatsoever to me. It also alters the trajectory of the plot , taut and grounded until now, to embrace, in one great swoop, pirate yarns, flood waters (dame Katrina herself) death defying rescues, romance, ghosts , even the odd miracle.

Yet stick with Fantine - and Straight - as they negotiate this strange terrain , for a finale as satisfying as it is cinematic.