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Under the Bone

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As a novel, UNDER THE BONE is a somewhat effective political tract. The author has all the right connections, as she makes clear in the acknowledgements at the front of the book. Among those thanked are exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Amy Wilentz, author of THE RAINY SEASON: HAITI SINCE DUVALIER (1989). An unkind reviewer might call this name-dropping and unseemly coziness, since Aristide clearly is the model for one of the main characters, and Wilentz has praised UNDER THE BONE unreservedly, calling it “an amazing first novel, lucid and compelling.”

“Never have the politics of international human rights—perverse, hilarious, and tragic—been so closely scrutinized,” writes Wilentz. “D’Adesky also plainly understands the moral dilemmas of observing and not participating—the horror of the foreigner.” A better book that fits Wilentz’s description well is BURMESE LOOKING GLASS (1993) by Edith T. Mirante, a nonfiction memoir with much literary value as autobiography. And no novel set in Haiti or elsewhere has ever depicted the moral dilemmas of the foreigner better than THE COMEDIANS (1966) by Graham Greene.

THE COMEDIANS is justly the best-known of all novels set in Haiti. Even so, it would not spring so quickly to mind were UNDER THE BONE more engrossing than it is. In contrast, Greene’s achievement does not haunt the pages of BREATH, EYES, MEMORY, a wonderful new novel by twenty-four-year-old Edwige Danticat. For readers interested in learning about Haiti, Wilentz’s excellent book probably is the best place to start. Distinguished novelist Herbert Gold published BEST NIGHTMARE ON EARTH: A LIFE IN HAITI in 1991. Due out soon is BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS: THE LEGACY OF DUVALIER by Mark Danner. And of interest for bibliographic and other reasons is Wilentz’s strongly negative review of Brian Moore’s novel NO OTHER LIFE in the November 15, 1993 issue of THE NATION.

UNDER THE BONE is not without merit. The confessional scene on pp. 44-58 shows what d’Adesky is capable of. The book is at once structurally overambitious and stylistically undistinguished, though, making it both turgid and confusing. A too-liberal sprinkling of phrases in Haitian Creole is awkward and off-putting. Finally, a tiny but telling point: The Japanese automobile brand is spelled “Daihatsu,” not “Diahatsu,” as rendered twice on page 36.

A Haitian character underscores Haiti’s seemingly eternal conundrum. “Of course I’m hopeful,” Gerard tells Leslie. “... We Haitians always have hope. Hope is what allows us to survive. But hope isn’t food. Hope isn’t money.”