In her novel Vale of Tears, Haitian author Paulette Poujol Oriol brings us a day in the life of Coralie Santeuil, a destitute woman who, slowly and with a great deal of effort, is making her way on foot across the city of Port-au-Prince. Coralie is visiting old friends, family and acquaintances and asking them for money. Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, and she will be evicted from the small room where she lives if she cannot come up with six month’s rent. She is around sixty years old and walks “with legs like a pair of wooden stilts, putting one foot forward, catching herself, finding her balance with difficulty, and bringing the other leg back again.” Near the end of this absorbing novel, we learn the reason behind Coralie’s pained gait. We also find out how she has come upon such hard times when she was born into privilege. Her father was a wealthy wholesale merchant, and in the opening pages, Oriol shows a seven-year-old Coralie playing with a doll “at the far end of an immense garden.” Her father gave her this beloved doll, which her stepmother, at the end of the first scene, breaks in an effort to punish Coralie.
Mr. Santeuil also gives his daughter his passive nature. He does nothing to stop his wife’s psychological abuse of Coralie, who, as an adult, surrenders to life’s onslaughts without first putting up a fight. “Everything glided over her,” writes Oriol about the older Coralie; “she gave in to fate without any sort of struggle other than that of the most rudimentary survival.” Coralie’s story is illuminating and tense rather than merely depressing thanks to Oriol’s direct but lyrical prose, her deep insights into character and the novel’s dramatic structure. In every chapter, a scene from Coralie’s earlier life is juxtaposed with an account of the next stop on her walk through Port-au-Prince. This structure makes the reader focus on the connections between Coralie’s past, including the many mistakes she has made, and her current condition. As the book progresses, we begin to wonder about what other missteps have brought Coralie to this point on her journey through poverty and pain.
Oriol, who is one of the most celebrated novelists in Haiti, ultimately renders the character of Coralie not only with honesty but with sympathy too. Vale of Tears is Oriol’s first novel to be published in English, and I hope translations of her other books will follow soon because I want to meet more characters as complex as Coralie Santeuil. Every step in her journey seems both like an extreme exertion of will and a matter of tragic fate. While for Coralie, this walk is a painful balancing act, it reads like the effortless creation of a master storyteller.
Originally posted on 4.30.2006