Novelist Danticat (The Farming of the Bones, 1998, etc.) slaps together a pastiche of cultural and political history, walking tour, and memoir focused around Carnival in the Haitian town of Jacmel.
Though she lived on Haiti until she was 12, when she joined her emigrant parents in New York City, Danticat never attended Carnival, having been warned repeatedly by her overprotective guardians about its dangers. Now in her early 30s, she returns to the island, finally ready to embrace the bacchanal. Basing her research in the town of Jacmel, touted locally as “the Riviera of Haiti,” the author interviews Carnival expert Michelet Divers, who sits on the committee charged with deciding who is in and who is out of the parade every year. (This year, Divers says, the mule with tennis shoes, a crowd favorite, is decidedly in.) Danticat wanders around the local cemetery, bushwhacks through banana fields in search of a 200-year-old steam engine, and talks to a local peasant farmer who still lives without electricity. She discusses standard Carnival characters, Carnival-specific games of chance, fireworks, banana fritters, and the contest to select city hall's Carnival queen. Finally, Danticat gets to Carnival day, offering snapshots of customary revelers: “zombies and apes greeting each other, white colonists kissing Arawak Indians, a lion sharing a bottle of juice with a bay alligator, and slaves shaking hands with ghosts and devils.” Interspersed with these traditional characters are those masked as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Che Guevara. Darker notes are struck by a troupe acting out the plight of Haitian boat people encountering the US Coast Guard and a scrawny young man costumed as AIDS, sporting lipstick, blackened teeth, a wig, dress, and white underwear splotched with red.
Meandering, intriguing, and maddeningly light on the actual Carnival.