Saturday, March 12, 2016

Dancing in the Baron's Shadow, by Fabienne Josaphat

Unnamed Press, 2016
231 pp


Any time anyone writes a novel about Haiti during the 1960s and the reign of Francois Duvalier, aka "Papa Doc," I am going to read it.  It was such an horrific time in Haiti's history, where anyone at any time could be accused of anything and sent to prison on trumped-up charges; some of these people were never again to see the light of day.  The intelligentsia had it especially bad, but everyone was at risk.

I was so excited to find and to start reading this book, since it's set in Haiti during the reign of Francois Duvalier, aka Papa Doc. As I started to read, I realized that the true focus here is on two brothers who took very different paths in life, their broken relationship and the crises that ultimately bring them together again.  They are two men, who, each in his own way, are looking for justice after a series of events tears their families apart and takes them away from the lives they'd built in Port-au-Prince.  I got the feel of the period here through the author's descriptions of repression, fear and the presence of Duvalier's Tonton Macoutes -- his personal goon squad who did the dirty work -- out on the streets, as well as the poverty that a large part of the population suffered, and overall, it is a good story that I think ought to be read.  What was happening in Haiti is a story that needs to be told as well -- and here we get a tiny slice of what it must have been like to live under a brutal and repressive regime.  

On the other hand, for me the story moves way too quickly and things feel very rushed here. I felt that things happened so very fast in this book that the story as a whole just didn't the depth it could have had , and the character development sort of loses a lot of steam as the narrative quickly becomes focused on plot.  It's as if  the author knew where she wanted to go with this story, but in the hurry to finish, the book ends up falling back too much on plot rather than the characters under study here. And then there are things plotwise that don't necessarily ring true in the telling. I can't really give an example, but there were times when I just went "huh?" 

It is, however, the author's first novel, and I do think she has a lot of talent so I'll look forward to reading more from her in the future. Slowing down, fleshing out both setting and characters to a much stronger degree, and not relying so much on a whirlwind plot would have made this book much better for me. However, I am very much applauding her choice of topic because I don't think a lot of people are very familiar with this horrific time in Haiti's history and any novels that bring out even the slightest bit of that time are well worth writing and even more worth reading. 

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