In her 2017 book, The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat recalls a Haitian Creole phrase her late mother used to repeat: "Nou tout a p mache ak sèkèy nou anba bra nou." It can be translated one of two ways, Danticat wrote: "We're all carrying our coffins with us every day," or "We are all constantly cheating death."
Loss and grief are notoriously difficult themes for any writer to tackle successfully, but Danticat has made them centerpieces of her fiction and nonfiction for more than 20 years. In her newest book, the short story collection Everything Inside, she explores how people come to terms with death, both their loved ones' and their own. It's a stunning collection that features some of the best writing of Danticat's brilliant career.
The collection's second story, "In the Old Days," follows Nadia, a New York high school teacher who learns that her father is dying in his Miami home. She has never met her dad, and her mother has recently told her that he was unaware of his daughter's existence until recently. Nadia is initially reluctant to visit her father: "How could he have wanted me to be part of his final rites when he'd been absent from my first?" she wonders.
When she arrives in Miami, she's shocked to learn that her father has already died. In the story's final pages, Nadia stands near her father's body, naming him for the first and last time. "I had always wondered what it would be like to call someone Papa," she thinks. It's an absolutely heartbreaking moment, and Danticat perfectly captures the complications of grief and the feeling of mourning a person you never had a chance to love.
The story "Without Inspection" begins with a man falling 500 feet to his death and forced to consider all that he's bound to leave behind in the span of 6 1/2 seconds. Arnold is an undocumented immigrant to the U.S.; he fled his native Haiti for the promise of a better life in the States. He was lucky to survive the voyage to the U.S. and luckier still to encounter a woman named Darline — another immigrant — who rescues him from the beach where he washed up and finds him shelter in his new country.
Arnold falls in love with Darline and takes to her son, Paris, who he hopes will one day consider him a father figure. But when he falls from a construction site into a cement mixer, he has to reckon with what comes next: "And that was when he realized that he was dying, and that his dying offered him a kind of freedom he'd never had before. Whatever he thought about he could see in front of him. Whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die." It's a clear-eyed story, sympathetic but not sentimental, and it's as gorgeous as it is emotionally difficult to read.
The collection's best story is also possibly the best of Danticat's career. "Sunrise, Sunset" follows Carole, whose daughter, Jeanne, has recently given birth to a child. Jeanne is suffering from what appears to be postpartum depression: "Motherhood is kind of a foggy bubble she can't step out of long enough to wrap her arms around her child." Carole is facing problems of her own: "It comes again on her grandson's christening day. A lost moment, a blank spot, one that Carole does not know how to measure. She is there one second, then she is not. She knows exactly where she is, then she does not."
Carole harbors doubts about her daughter's ability to raise the child, but she's also conscious that she herself is slipping into dementia. Desperate to prove that she's still worthy of her family's trust, she grabs her grandson, holding him over the railing of a terrace in hopes of demonstrating that there are still things she's able to hold on to. The story ends in heartbreak, as Carole is forced to come to terms with her illness, knowing she likely doesn't have much longer to live. Danticat beautifully traces how the specter of death haunts families and how we reckon with losses that haven't yet occurred.
Danticat's writing is, as usual, superb. There are no wasted words in Everything Inside; she writes with both economy and urgency, never resorting to glib aphorisms and never shying away from difficult questions. It's an immensely rewarding collection: The reader feels connected to Danticat's characters, but she refuses to manipulate her audience with anything mawkish or overly pat.
"Death cannot write its own story," Danticat wrote in The Art of Death. "While we are still alive, we are the ones who get to write the story." That is what she has done in Everything Inside, and unsurprisingly, she does it perfectly. This is a brilliant, relentlessly honest book about how we say goodbye; about compassion and cruelty in the face of death; about, as she writes, "loves that outlive lovers."