The title character, the so-called Dew Breaker, is a seemingly ordinary Haitian immigrant living a willfully quiet life in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. But he is hiding a terrible secret: back in the 1960’s in Haiti he was a member of the dreaded Tontons Macoute, the blood-soaked enforcers of FranÃ§ois Duvalier’s murderous regime.
The Dew Breaker’s name came from the fact that he and his henchmen would usually arrive “before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves” to abduct victims from their homes; he tortured and killed untold numbers of innocents, including a much-loved preacher who dared to speak out against the government. The scar on his face is both a mark of Cain and a reminder of his violent past.
The other people in this book â€” who, we gradually learn, are members of the Dew Breaker’s family and former victims and their family members â€” are equally in thrall to the past. Whether they have stayed in Port-au-Prince or left for the United States to try to write a second act to their lives, they all find themselves haunted by the long events that left them with broken bodies, fractured families or smashed hopes. For these characters the dead are not merely ghosts; they are palpable, intimately felt presences in their daily lives.
In her earlier books “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” “Krik? Krak!” and “The Farming of Bones,” Ms. Danticat, who was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she was 12, demonstrated an ability to use her lyric gift of language and her emotional clarity to show how the public and the private, the personal and the political are intertwined in the lives of Haitians and Haitian-Americans, and to show how the past anchors and hobbles the present.
“The Dew Breaker” not only showcases these same qualities, but it is also Ms. Danticat’s most persuasive, organic performance yet. As seamless as it is compelling, the novel recounts its harrowing tale in limpid, understated prose, using a looping structure of overlapping stories to tell the Dew Breaker’s story by indirection.
It is a tale that uses its characters’ experiences as a prism to examine Haiti’s own difficulties in breaking free from a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance that continues through today, a tale that simultaneously unfolds to become a philosophical meditation on the possibility of redemption and the longing of victims and victimizers alike to believe in the promise of new beginnings held forth by the American Dream.
The book is particularly timely, given the current crisis in Haiti.