Edwidge Danticat is a master at interweaving stories to make a larger tale; the work in this volume is simultaneously short-story collection and novel. As always, her subject matter is Haiti's bloody history, which she presents within the lives and voices of individuals who are participants in that history. In The Dew Breaker, she grapples with the complex issue of guilt in the story of a former prison guard, assassin, and torturer. Never named in the novel, he has left Haiti to start a new life as a barber in New York City with his wife and their daughter, who has grown up believing that her father's scarred face was the result of torture he suffered during his own imprisonment.
The first narrative of the collection, “The Book of the Dead,” introduces Ka, the daughter who narrates the story, as she and her father travel to Tampa, Florida, to deliver a sculpture which Ka has made; it portrays her father as a prisoner. She has had no inkling of the true nature of his time in prison until, on this trip he disappears during an overnight stop in Lakeland, Florida. When he turns up again, he has destroyed the statue and tells Ka the truth—he was a guard, not a prisoner; one of his victims gave him the terrible scar on his face; he feels unworthy of her statue. Stunned and sickened, Ka asks her mother how she can love such a man, a question which remains unanswered until the volume's last narrative.
“The Book of the Dead” begins to introduce the novel's central theme of redemption, no matter how shaky redemption might feel to the redeemed. In this narrative one learns that the father has always had a passion for museums, especially the New York Metropolitan, where his favorite exhibits dealt with the Egyptians. The Egyptian Book of the Dead was his favorite bedtime reading for his daughter, and her name was drawn from the Egyptian concept of ka, a second self which guides one's body through life and death, like the Haitian idea of one's good angel. Now he reiterates all this to Ka, who is too angry and upset at first to follow the implications of what her father is telling her. In a world where, at any moment, he might be recognized by one of his former victims, now perhaps an immigrant like him, the Egyptians (with their own history of bloodshed and tyranny) have been a sort of talisman for her father. Like Ka and her mother, they have given him a mask in a dangerous world.
The narratives which follow introduce a variety of Haitians, most of them immigrants to New York, most of them tied in one way or another to the work of the dew breakers (so called because they often showed up to make their arrests in the early hours of the morning, just as the dew was settling on the grass). “Seven” relates the reuniting of one of those immigrants with his wife. He has spent only one night with her in the whole seven years of their marriage. He left for New York the day after their wedding and has spent his time there working desperately to earn enough money to bring her to him. Now she has arrived where he is sharing a few rooms with two other immigrant men. Later the reader realizes that their landlord is the dew breaker himself, but in this narrative the emphasis is on the poverty and dislocation which marks these people's lives and on the violence they find in their new country in the deaths of Haitians such as Patrick Dorismond and Amadou Diallo at the hands of the police.
“Water Child” tells the story of Nadine, another Haitian in New York, a nurse whose parents suffered deprivations to send her to school for the nursing degree that could lead to a better life away from Haiti. Now their letters beg her to call them, but she is imprisoned in her own sort of torture, the grief that has come along with an abortion and which now separates her from her family as well as from the baby's father and from her fellow nurses. Her only meaningful contact is with a surgical patient whose larynx has been removed. Like the patient, she feels she has lost her voice.
The second narrative that follows the dew breaker focuses on his wife, Anne, on Christmas Eve, the occasion of the family's annual attendance at mass. Unlike her husband and daughter, Anne has maintained her connections with the Church. Now her eager stories about miracles, a topic of deep interest to her, serve merely to bore and irritate her skeptical daughter, who...