Book Review - Everything Inside

Born in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat joined her immigrant parents in New York when she was twelve and published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), when she was twenty-five. She writes with great compassion about her homeland and the Haitian diaspora. In Everything Inside, her latest collection of short stories, Danticat explores her characters’ inner states – their loneliness, fears and regrets – which unfailingly reflect the world they inhabit.

“Dosas” is a bittersweet tale about betrayal and hope. Elsie works in Miami as a live-in carer. Her husband Blaise left her for her best friend Olivia. After Blaise calls Elsie from Haiti with an urgent request, she recalls their time together, this “trio of siblings of whom Olivia was the dosa, the … surplus child”. As their desires overlapped all three became “dosas”: “untwinned, lonely, alone together”. A powerful motif is an old sticker shaped like a stop sign on Elsie’s apartment door with the warning: “NOTHING IS WORTH DYING FOR”. On the other side, the same sticker has been altered to read: “EVERYTHING INSIDE IS WORTH DYING FOR”.

Mélisande, a nanny, endures a different impotence in “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special”, in which she is paralysed by fear when she discovers she has AIDS. Her fate is in the hands of her employer, who buys the medicine she needs to stay alive. The title refers to Mélisande’s fatal liaison with a man who seduced her with a worthless trinket, a fake-gold “love-me-and-leave-me” ring.

Danticat explores difficult subjects in spare, eloquent prose. In “The Gift”, two former lovers, Anika and Thomas, meet at their favourite Miami restaurant. Thomas’s wife and daughter have recently died in the 2010 Haitian earthquake and he lost a leg in the disaster. The tragedy has caused the pair’s paths to diverge. Thomas’s remorse over his affair with Anika is a counter to her yearning to reconnect. In “Hot-Air Balloons”, two college roommates in Miami try to reconcile their different ambitions. While Neah’s father is an esteemed anthropologist, Lucy’s parents are migrant fruit pickers who follow the harvests along the Georgia and Florida coasts. Neah wants to drop out and work for a charity helping abused Haitian women, while Lucy aspires to escape poverty through education.

Another theme is memory, and Danticat conveys the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s in “Sunrise, Sunset”, a poignant tale about a grandmother’s increasingly erratic behaviour when her grandson is born. But her descent into dementia allows her to teach her depressed daughter an important lesson. “Without Inspection” is a reference to those who escape interrogation by an immigrant officer. Arnold is a construction worker who in this story is falling to his death. An illegal immigrant, he arrived in Miami by boat and was rescued by his fellow Haitian Darline, who came the same way and lost her husband to the sea. He went on to forge a loving relationship with Darline and her son, assuming a Cuban identity in order to work. As he falls, memories surface; as an illegal, he observes, he doesn’t technically exist. In Danticat’s hands, with great tenderness, these hidden lives are moved away from the margins.

Originally published by the TLS