Today’s Haitian Book Club selection is Vale of Tears by Paulette Poujol-Oriol, a most gifted novelist. Vale of Tears is the English translation of her novel Le Passage (hats off to translator Dolores A. Schaefer for a job well-done…no clumsy, stilted English, just a smooth translation), and it’s understandable why Ibex Publishers, the publisher for the English edition didn’t title it The Passage, but chose the more descriptive Vale of Tears, for The Passage would have been an understatement, as the life of Coralie Santeuil is everything except a crystal stair. As one begins to read about her origins, and follow her into adolescence, it’s clear that it will take a miracle to salvage her from the horrendous deck of cards, she’s been dealt. Only there’s no miracle.
Born into a wealthy, upper-class mulatto family in Haiti in the year 1901, the red-headed, silver-eyed, and physically fragile Coralie is the victim of Aline, a self-serving, manipulative woman who marries her father. Aline’s cruelty makes Cinderella’s stepmother look like Mary Magdalene post-redemption. The thing about Coralie is that she never recovers from the emotional abuse inflicted by her during those pre-teen and post-adolescent years.
At this point in Haitian society, it was probably rather scandalous for an unmarried girl to get away from her wicked stepmother by going off to her own apartment, so Coralie is somewhat of a helpless victim. When she does leave home, though, at the start of Word War II, she uses her freedom to liberate her body, not her mind. She’s still the same frightened little Coralie that Aline used to lock up in dark closets, and deprive of her loving doll—the mother Aline can never be, who gives her the affection that her absentee, backbone-lacking father Félix has wholly surrendered to his second wife.
Vale of Tears is truly brilliantly written; the narrator goes from one stage to another of Coralie Santeuil’s life, with each chapter a back and forth of sort between her past and her present. It’s been said that dwelling on the past is destructive, but for a woman like Coralie, looking at the past is an absolute must. Flipping over the previous pages of her life, allows her to reflect, to see where she went wrong, even if her decisions and lack of self-will are irreversible.
Poujol-Oriol captures the essence of human nature so well, that the novel might as well have been a contemporary one. This passage from the novel for example describes a scene at a funeral:
“Well, it is not the dead that people give wreaths and sheaves of flowers at funerals. They could not care less. It is to those who stay behind, to the living, especially if they are rich, that the super floral arrangements are given. It is a way of saying to acquaintances, “See we are your friends. Do not forget us at your parties and in your business ventures.”
By the time I had read the last sentence of the book, I felt this immeasurable sadness, this melancholy for Coralie’s life, and this regret over the fact that I would never meet this agile novelist Paulette Poujol Oriol, who died in March 2011. Her novel has been one of the most engrossing, at times difficult to take, works I’ve ever read. Her heroine is so real, you can almost feel her pain when she gets cut, feel her mortification every time she’s humiliated. Coralie is, as Poujol-Oriol puts it, “engrossed in her private hurricane”, and judging from the direction her life took, it must have been a Category 6.
Author Photo: Eddy Aubourg/Le Nouvelliste
To read other selections of our Haitian Book Club, click here.