99 Crossing the Mangrove, Maryse Conde

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Crossing the Mangrove, Maryse Conde (trans. Richard Philcox), Anchor, 1995, ISBN 0-385-47633-7, $19.95, 208pp.

The last book assigned in my African-American Women’s Literature course actually goes a little off the coast to look at a Guadalopean writer who now makes her home in the U.S. but writes about her island birthplace in her native French and Creole. This novel is her most recent, a study it seems of a community on the island and the changes brought about by an outsider.

The outsider, Frances Sancher, dies in Chapter One, and the reader expects a mystery here, in which an explanation for his death is revealed in the end. And it is true enough that Frances is a mysterious character, especially as seen through the many different eyes of the community, but Conde is not writing a detective story– or, at least, not a traditional one. Even though Frances seems to be a catalyst for change in the community, he is not the center of the novel, even though his physical body in its casket serves as the candle to which the moths are drawn. Like the candle, Frances’ life and death illuminates the other characters, sometimes singeing one or two, but when the candle burns out, the moths are free to move on and return to what they were doing before the candle arrived.

I really liked the structure of this novel, as each chapter is told from a new point of view (nearly 20 different in all). I realize that this is nothing new–William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and other novels have used a similar scheme–but this was the first time I had run into it.

I’m not sure the novel works for me in the end, either, unless Conde’s purpose was to portray Guadalopean society as fractured and diverse. This definitely comes through, but works against the Western tradition of cohesiveness in the novel. The ending here is not Aristotelian; instead, it implies a multitude of beginnings.

[Finished April 1999]

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