The Farming of Bones

by Edwidge Danticat

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

Danticat is the first Haitian woman to write in English, be published by a major American press, and earn wide publicity, so she is the first one to open the door of her culture to mainstream America. Her work has received almost universally favorable reviews, and she has won numerous awards and honors for her two novels, Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones, and her short story collection, Krik? Krak!

An interesting aspect of criticism of Danticat's work is that, unlike discussions of many other writers, commentary on her work always also includes a lengthy discussion of her life, even though she is relatively young. Perhaps this is because Haiti and its culture and history are not well known to most American and European readers, so there is a certain fascination inherent in Danticat's life and in her unfamiliar culture. Perhaps it's because her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was the semi-autobiographical story of a young girl raised by an aunt, who comes to the United States at age twelve and must deal with her family's generational issues and the dislocation of immigration to a strange place. A book like this makes readers ask about the author's life in an attempt to determine how much of the novel is ‘‘true.’’

Dan Cryer, who wrote one of the few unfavorable reviews of The Farming of Bones, in Salon, seemed to be reacting to this seemingly excessive interest in Danticat's life, mainstream Americans’ fascination with her ‘‘exotic’’ settings, and her lionization as a spokeswoman for Haitian Americans (a position that Danticat says she does not want). ‘‘Pity the young novelist surfing the wave of novelty and hype,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Sooner or later, she's going to wipe out.’’ Regarding the awards she's won, he asked, ‘‘A prized seat among the literati-in-waiting of Granta magazine's 20 Best American Novelists and a National Book Award nomination for Krik? Krak!? Oh, please! Has anyone actually read these books?’’ Cryer criticized Danticat's characterization, saying that Amabelle and Sebastien are depicted only with the broadest brush, making it ‘‘hard to care, except in the most abstract way,’’ about their fates. ‘‘This is by far Danticat's longest book, and the stretch shows,’’ he commented. ‘‘Only 29, Danticat has plenty of time to achieve her considerable potential. But overpraising her work won't help her get there.’’

Cryer seemed to be alone in his opinion, however, as other critics praised the work. No antiseptic, nothing for the pain, just the serrated slice of her words,’’ wrote Christopher John Farley in Time, ‘‘… every chapter cuts deep, and you feel it.’’ Farley also remarked that Danticat's prose ‘‘never turns purple, never spins wildly into the fantastic, always remains focused … [and] uncovers moments of raw humanness.’’ Scott Adlerberg, in the Richmond Review, praised The Farming of Bones as an ‘‘indelible work of art,’’ remarking on Danticat's ‘‘effortless style’’ and ‘‘simple but sensual language [that] brings her tropical world to life; one can feel the heat, see the luxuriant colors, taste the spicy foods.… Amabelle is a flesh and blood woman … We share in her joys and sorrows, her dreams, memories, and day-to-day struggles.’’ In Newsweek, Sarah Van Boven cited Danticat's beginning the book with the birth of a wealthy child, while the true hero is the servant girl Amabelle, as one of many ‘‘masterful inversions’’ in the book; among others, she noted, ‘‘joyful reunions turn hollow, damnation masquerades as salvation, big questions are met with a silence more profound than any answer.’’

As Van Boven suggests, Danticat does not provide any neat conclusion, moral lesson, or encompassing answer to the horrific events that take place in the novel. Sebastien, who is named in the first line of the book (‘‘His name is Sebastien Onius’’), soon disappears and is never seen again, and his fate is uncertain—he's presumed killed, but Amabelle, and readers, never have the satisfaction of knowing exactly what became of him. Amabelle herself, by the end of the book, is still grieving, still alone, deeply scarred by the genocide—and she always will be. Nothing in the book is predictable except that inevitably, pain and sorrow will enter everyone's life. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that when violence does erupt in the book, the story develops the ‘‘unflinching clarity’’ of a documentary. The review also praised Danticat's realistic characterizations, the dignity of the people described, and her ‘‘lushly poetic and erotic, specifically detailed’’ prose. Calvin Wilson, in the Kansas City Star, wrote, ‘‘There's little doubt that, at a time when some writers gain attention simply by emphasizing the glib, the trendy and the superficial, Danticat will continue to create works of enduring weight.’’

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