Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet | Review

Truthfully, Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Dance on the Volcano (tr. Kaiama L. Glover) feels like a few books in one. Here is a chunkster novel that tells the story of an individual woman, main character Minette, alongside an important portion of Haitian history. Like many books of this sort, Dance on the Volcano ends up feeling a little overwhelming at times (and a little poorly balanced between Minette's personal drama and the wide-reaching cultural implications of her personal life), but there's no doubt that overall this is a fine, fascinating novel and one well worth reading.

Dance on the Volcano sets its tone early. Minette, her younger sister Lise, her mother Jasmine, her effectively foster brother Joseph, and the entire cast of black (free) characters are swiftly placed in contrast to the island's whites. The plot begins with Minette (and her sister Lise, to a lesser degree) "discovered" by their white, Creole neighbor as the two teenage girls sing at home. Mme Acquaire is instantly in awe of their raw talent and decides to teach the girls in the early mornings, despite the general taboo against it. As Minette grows more and more talented, it becomes clear that her future is on the stage, and indeed Minette soon becomes an outright phenomenon as the first "colored" woman to sing on the white stage.

From here, Dance on the Volcano follows Minette's numerous struggles in becoming accepting as a successful stage singer. While there is little doubt at her talent, her color influences the entire conversation surrounding her art, indeed defining everything from her paycheck to her participation in particular concerts. Thus begins Minette's more general social awakening. Though still effectively a teenager, Minette begins to realize just how cruel the world around her is, simply on racial grounds. She learns secrets about her mother's past, she learns secrets about her brother's present, and she begins to wish for a more just world. She begins to fight for her own rights, using her immense talent as leverage against racism. She also becomes involved in efforts to rescue slaves, and to advocate (albeit privately) for their general emancipation. The story tracks much of Haiti's tumultuous history through Minette's eyes and experiences, often with tragic implications.

Curiously, another plotline begins to invade this already loaded story. Just as Minette begins her social awakening, she also experiences a sexual awakening. This story is the least engaging (by far) of the many threads running through Dance on the Volcano, with a particularly uncomfortable message about sexual/romantic desire overwhelming Minette's own beliefs and values. Minette's black, slave-owning, slave-beating lover is presented as a complex character with contradictory aims and motives, but his violence and general awfulness as a person made it very difficult for me to care about their relationship or about him at all. There was a sense that this romance was supposed to somehow emphasize the complexity of Haiti's slave-owning past, yet it ended up feeling like a waste of space that could have instead focused on Minette's own growth.

This is not the novel's only flaw. The writing is simplistic and at times grating, with awkward transitions from very plain prose to a more lyrical style. It also occasionally felt anachronistic, with some sentences sounding outright modern and others sounding much more like they'd been written in the 18th century. This also ends up affecting pacing, in a way that makes it generally less pleasant to read the novel in longer chunks.

Yet even with its flaws, I found it hard to get Dance on the Volcano out of my mind. I can't say that I loved it, but I feel like I learned a lot from it. That probably says more about my own (lack of) knowledge about Haitian history, yet I appreciated how Dance on the Volcano framed it through Minette's personal lens. The plot density may have made reading more difficult and may have bothered me at points (again, the romance subplot), but it also gave me a lot to consider. Whether I think it worked on a literary level does not change the fact that it inspired me to think about the topic of more complex racial identities and contradictions.

All in all, Dance on the Volcano is certainly a book worth reading and one I am grateful to have read. And after years of having Marie Vieux-Chauvet's writing recommended to me, it makes me all the more eager to get to Love, Anger, Madness.

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