The Scorpion's Claw

by Myriam J.A. Chancy
320 pages,
ISBN: 1900715910

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Brief Review. Fiction
by Irene D'Souza

Myriam Chancy's fiction transforms life in Haiti from brief sound bytes we catch on television into an a luminous portrayal of a country in shambles. Her fiction recreates both the charmed society life that existed during the Duvalier regime and the confusion, lawlessness and horror that occurs in the aftermath of the downfall of the Duvalier dictatorship.
As in her previous novel, Spirit of Haiti, she's looking acutely at her native territory. The Scorpion's Claw, tells the story of a modestly grand, cosmopolitan Haitian family, attempting to safeguard an old way of life. Chancy is adept at deciphering the complexities of Haitian families. There are intricate relationships here: illegitimate sons who work as indentured servants in their father's home, half-siblings who are unaware of their blood ties, and many aunts and cousins. All are accorded their entrances and exits.
This book also explores the affectionate relationship between a grandmother and her grandchildren. Chancy illuminates the natural love between grandparent and grandchild without the weight of the toxicity that often seeps into parent and child relationships.
The novel has two main characters: Josephe, safe in Winnipeg, attends university, but is forever seeking refuge even though she is thousands of miles from the melee. Josephe has a double burden to endure: assaulted in childhood, she continues to be emotionally disoriented by the memory of that event; the sudden death of her grandmother, the one person, she's convinced, who truly loved and understood her, leaves her feeling entirely bereft and alone. The second protagonist is Desiree, Josephe's childhood friend, who has remained in Haiti. Desiree abandons her comfortable middle-class life and joins the underground movement. She is convinced she can make a difference. Desiree's idealism is noble and pathetic at the same time; this is blood-soaked country, where the bullet is mightier than the pen. She's incapable of grasping just how fruitless her struggle and self-sacrifice are bound to be.
Josephe witnesses the violent rebellion on TV. The footage makes her more miserable. She is torn between a genuine desire to help her countrymen and the knowledge that the rebellion is doomed to failure, a certainty that doesn't assuage her sense of obligation and guilt. Given the poor odds, Josephe decides to stay put. Hating herself for what she views as her own cowardice, she endeavours to redeem herself through education.
Haiti is a violent country, and, as Chancy illustrated in her previous novel, never more so than when those who 'have' are pitted against those who 'have not'. Desiree blusters her way through the disaffected world of the post-Duvalier Haitian ennui. Stranded in a country that is no longer ruled by a dictator, disaffected young Haitians act out their feelings of economic deprivation through violence and bloodshed. Frustration, inability to play by the rules, and the desire to survive no matter what that takes, all propel the novel toward a gloomy conclusion.
The novel is steeped in both sorrow and deep affection for Haiti; many readers will find Chancy's grief-coloured portrayal a fascinating introduction to a forbidding land. If the strangeness of Haiti makes an intriguing subject, it also helps accentuate Chancy's abilities as a storyteller. She describes Haiti's dreadful reality in evocative and illuminating prose. And the story she tells of the plight of a Haitian family, serves as a worthy subtext for all the atrocities that haunt our television broadcasts on any given day.

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