Labyrinths of solitude

By Lisa Allen-Agostini

The Loneliness of Angels, by Myriam J.A. Chancy
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-184-523-122-4, 353 pp)

Myriam J.A. Chancy

Myriam J.A. Chancy. Image courtesy the author

The Loneliness of Angels — which has won a Guyana Prize for Caribbean Literature and was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize — is a big, sad, haunting book. Its elegiac tone fits its subject matter perfectly, as Myriam Chancy unravels a plot centring on a Haitian family wracked by the murder of its matriarch while Haiti burns in the aftermath of the 2004 coup d’état removing President Jean Bertrand Aristide from power. This political turbulence is the backdrop to a winding narrative that shifts in epoch and location from Haiti to Ireland, Canada, France and the United States, and from the mid nineteenth century to the early twenty-first. The time and setting shifts are sometimes hard to follow, but on the whole this novel is a beautiful, terrifying exploration of the psychic pain borne by the children of a country continually at war with itself.

In an author’s note, Chancy writes:

The structure of this novel is loosely informed by the metaphor of the Christian labyrinth originating in Chartres Cathedral, France . . . The experience of walking a labyrinth is a simulacrum of everyday encounters within the self and with others, known and unknown, past, present, and future. The objective is to follow a circuitous path to a central rose where one receives an insight into a problem, one’s character, or life itself, and one is able to re-enter “life,” or the circuitry of the labyrinth, with this new knowledge in hand . . . Within this process, time and memory function in a non-linear fashion, interacting with each other non-chronologically in such a way as to inform lived experience both discretely and symbiotically.

This structure is an ambitious experiment that doesn’t always work. The labyrinthine movements among characters and settings can sometimes leave the reader confounded, scrambling back to doublecheck who and where and what he is reading. This is particularly so when an Irish character appears — living in Ireland as a domestic worker during the Great Potato Famine and simultaneously living as a spirit in contemporary Haiti, as one learns by the end of the novel.

Any work on Haiti must admit to the existence of the supernatural, and indeed The Loneliness of Angels is a work of magical realism that explores the legacy of telepathic power running through two families and how it both destroys them and saves them. Its central character is Ruth, a wealthy mixed-race piano teacher with the gift or curse of empathy and second sight. While she herself has no children, she comes to be the heart — Chancy’s “central rose” — of her family. Her brothers are pulled to and repelled by her gift, and their own children each come to some inheritance of the painful, wondrous possibilities of it.

Though Ruth is the centre, it is her niece Catherine who gets more page time and who articulates most clearly the novel’s vision of a fractured, imperilled nation that eats its people and their potential. Catherine narrates her own sections, whereas Ruth and the other main characters — Romulus, Ruth’s erstwhile pupil, and Elsie, the Irish seerwoman — have their sections narrated in the third person. When a writer chooses to give one character a voice, becoming the “I”, and takes voice from the others, that has the effect of making it the “I” character’s story, sidelining the other characters to background roles. The reader is allowed an intimacy with the “I” that is perforce impossible with the “he” or “she.” I’m not sure if that was Chancy’s intention; in fact, this seems so much Catherine’s story — a woman’s story — that Romulus appears an afterthought, and I often wondered, as I read, why he was given such a big part in the resolution when he had come across as a plot device, more than a person, for most of the novel.

But the book, when it works, leaves the reader drunk and battered with bloody, succulent prose. Take, for example, this passage from Catherine’s narrative, as she has grown up to be a concert pianist on the cusp of fame in France:

I hear the syncopation of my short nails dancing their way across the keys, slipping effortlessly between chords, between the black and the ivory, up and down. There is nothing in the world like this. I feel the bones of my slender fingers as they stretch to reach for the trills and sudden movements in Chopin’s Études, a sequence I had longed to play like this, ever since I was a small child taking lessons from Ruth in the comfortable setting of homes lining the high mountain road. While I trained, down below, Port-au-Prince swelled in the heat and exhaust fumes and impoverished bodies scrambling through hills of refuse like ants in search of crumbs. I had not been aware of the decay below. I knew nothing of it. But even as my fingers follow the now well-travelled pattern of the music’s arc, I know that this can’t be true, that I am lying to myself. The truth is, I didn’t care to know. In the homes in the hills, even in the homes of the politically conscious, of those who tried to alter the course of Haiti’s history, children were sheltered from the ugliness of life, sheltered from the hard as iron truth of poverty and fear that courses down from the top of the mountains to the corrugated rooftops of the shantytown huts, emptying their bowels in the makeshift dykes hemming in the lakous. I have a worn image in my mind’s eye of the poorest of the poor bathing with salvaged slivers of soap, reconciling themselves to the filth floating alongside their waists since some kind of water is better than none.

In the end, with Ruth dead, Catherine chooses to become some sort of centre, the new matriarch. It is a kind of healing for her and some of her family members, but other characters are left to their own fates. Romulus, whose story is pivotal to the plot, finds his own healing from drug abuse, self-denigration, and isolation, but he remains separate from the family he has helped destroy with his weakness and blind selfishness. Perhaps he is in his own labyrinth, with Haiti the central rose he must search out, but the novel takes him elsewhere — to me, dissatisfyingly. All the symbolism in the book points to Haiti as home — fractured, poisoned, imperfect, but home. That Romulus finds his surcease away from her betrays the novel’s theme and its structure. Despite this, The Loneliness of Angels is not only a richly textured novel but an important addition to the growing number of works on our hemisphere’s most enduring puzzle.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2011

Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She co-edited the anthology Trinidad Noir (2008), and is the author of a young adult novel, The Chalice Project (2009). She also administers the Allen Prize for Young Writers, a non-profit organisation dedicated to rewarding, training, and publishing teenage writers from Trinidad and Tobago.