THE PLOT: Moonbath by Yanick Lahens is a family saga set in Haiti. Starting with a young girl washed up on a beach, it goes back in time to her great-grandfather and tells the story of her poor village community. The story alternates between the narrator of the young girl, explaining how she got to be on the beach, and a chorus of communal voices telling her family history. As her great-grandfather is cheated out of his land, her grandmother falls in love with a rich man, and the dictator Duvalier takes power, Moonbath depicts the mystical life of the community across generations.
RATING: It hurts but I’m going to give this book three stars. I know it’s written by one of Haiti’s foremost authors, and I know it’s probably an academically brilliant book that can be studied in English literature classes. However, it left me cold and I really struggled to get to the end. It’s so important to caveat that I am not the intended reader for this work. It contains so many subtle references to Haitian culture and history, which I struggled to pick up on and would not have the same resonance for me as for a reader from the Caribbean. In some ways, I feel bad giving it a star rating at all. But this is my blog, and I have to be honest and share my own views.
GOOD BITS: There are great aspects to this book. Firstly, I liked the communal narration, which felt like an Ancient Greek chorus. They are witnesses to the destruction of a noble family, but cannot affect the action. Secondly, I liked the infusion of voudou spiritualism which is central to Haitian culture, and is so prevalent in the descriptions and atmosphere within the novel. And, finally, I don’t think the core plot is bad – it’s not an action-packed novel, but the point is that the community is witness to big historical events, which completely change their way of life yet have no real impact on them. The fact that nothing changes isn’t the bad thing, but unfortunately we don’t have characters to compensate for the lack of action.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: It felt like I was viewing this novel from behind a frosted window. I had to read each word so slowly and carefully, because the meaning was deliberately obscured by metaphorical (and, in fairness, beautiful) language. Similarly, it was like the characters were shadows. I knew there were characters of interest and substance, but we never got to know them. They didn’t have a lot of dialogue, they didn’t make choices, they just “were” and it seemed like events were happening around them. The second half of the book picked up as we saw the consequences of Orvil, Fénelon and Léosthène’s choices and how they developed as people. But, it was sad that main characters like Olmène and Tertulien faded away into nothing.
OVERALL: If you like literary, magical realism, this is a book for you. I read this for #ReadCaribbean and it was good to read a work of translated fiction. I did some additional research into Duvalier’s dictatorship and the blue militia, which helped me understand some of the subtleties, and which I would recommend for readers unfamiliar with Haitian history. It reminded me of ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so if those are your bag, you may love Moonbath.