Yanick Lahens’ The Colour of Dawn is a poignant, brief novel set over twenty-four hours in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince, and narrated by two very different sisters whilst they await news of their missing political activist brother.
The novel revolves around the two narrators Joyeuse and Angelique, and their mother Venante, who though silent is a looming presence in the novel; male figures are conspicuous by their absence. From the women’s missing brother Fignole to their absent fathers and lovers, Lahens sets her novel in a world of women. Each of these three women, meanwhile, represents a different aspect of the eternal woman and also of Haiti. Venante represents both the mother and the crone, and also the more traditional aspect of Haitian society, deeply embroiled in Voodoo and a devotee of the spirit Loa Erzulie. Angelique, also a mother, but also religiously opposed to sex since the encounter which produced her son, represents the maiden. With her evangelical religious beliefs she also represents an aspect of Haitian society moving away from its Africanist beliefs towards a more European religion. Joyeuse represents the maiden in her most irreverent aspect, irrepressible and joyful. Joyeuse is irreligious, rejecting her mother and sister’s beliefs and instead adopting a more atheist, materialist outlook on life, entirely based on pleasure and the hope of escaping the island.
The novel deals succinctly with many of the current issues of daily life which Haitians face; continuous political upheaval and violence, repression of opposition, crushing poverty, and sexual exploitation of women. In fact, the undertones of abuse and the ways in which each of the female characters has had to use sex as a way to survive in a world where often it is the only thing they have to sell, is crushingly present. The whole novel is overshadowed by a terrible sense of impending doom, of a crescendo leading to inevitable conclusions for the poor, for the family, for Fignole and for Haiti.
The first few chapters of The Colour of Dawn are a little staid, but it is unclear if this is a product of the original or perhaps a by-product of the translation from the French. This issue seems to disappear as the book develops, although it does lead to a bit of a laboured start to the book. However, to have developed such a complex and understated story, which possesses both narrative quality, stylistic prose and real political punch, is a considerable achievement. The reader is left with that wonderful feeling when a book fulfils and surpasses expectations to produce a perfectly formed whole. Addressing post-colonialist discourse in a way which engages with past theorisers in the subtlest of ways, Joyeuse makes reference to writing poetry about snow in school as a tribute, presumably, to Kamau Brathwaite. The book is also intelligent and sensitive in the way it has attempted to portray the impact of recent events in which Haiti. Although Lahens makes reference to the 2010 earthquake, her refusal to make this a central theme of the book forces the outside world to see Haiti, and its problems, as more than just the natural disaster that brought it so much international attention. By drawing attention to the other, more deep seated problems which the country is facing, Lahens highlights the way in which the international community pays attention only to the aspects it chooses. This is a beautiful and tragic novel, which will hopefully be followed by more international renown for its author, and future works for an international audience.