The Unnamed Press
Released February 23, 2016
REVIEWED BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA
Good historical fiction requires a subtle balance: enough research to animate the historical subject, but not so much emphasis on factual detail that character, action and other elements of story are sidelined. Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, Fabienne Josaphat’s fast-paced debut about two brothers trying to survive the brutality of Haiti under François Duvalier, is the sort of historical novel that moves more like an action film than a costume drama. Josaphat expertly projects event after event onto a well-imagined historical backdrop which reflects, I suspect, an immense amount of time spent reading and interviewing. Still, her novel runs along at a breathless pace, its tight plot never appearing to labor under the weight of so much research.
Some of the book’s tension derives from the setting Josaphat has chosen for her tale: Port-au-Prince in 1965. This is the Haiti of François Duvalier, a.k.a. Papa Doc, who was responsible for murdering between 30,000 and 60,000 people with the help of his militia, the Tonton Macoute, as well as infusions of anti-Communist aid money from the United States. We never meet Duvalier directly in this novel, but the influence of this US-educated-medical-doctor-turned-dictator pervades every aspect of life in Port-au-Prince. There’s an undercurrent of dread in each scene, and even the workaday conversations early in the novel are colored with the possibility that the Tonton Macoute is watching.
Yet even amid all this rich historical and political background, Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow is a personal story at its heart: a tale of two brothers whose different personalities and life choices bring them into repeated conflict with each other. When we first meet Raymond L’Eveillé, we learn that he is a Port-au-Prince taxi driver who is simply not able to make enough money to keep his family from starving because a statewide curfew cuts into what would normally have been his prime earning time. He waits anxiously outside a brothel for a client while curfew looms, hoping to make just a bit more cash before heading home. We hit the ground running a moment later, though, as Raymond is presented with a choice: to use his knowledge of the winding streets of Port-au-Prince to rescue a young family of three fleeing from the Tonton Macoute, or to do nothing and live with the fact that he might have prevented whatever awful fate awaits the family. “What kind of man was he?” Raymond wonders as he tries to ignore the father’s knocking on the taxi window. Yet his conscience wins, and he risks what little he has to help — learning only later that he has, in fact, saved the lives of a popular radio journalist and his family. He has also most likely landed in trouble himself; his white Datsun taxi isn’t difficult to identify, he knows.
Enter his brother Nicolas L’Eveillé, a law professor whose arrogance and bourgeois values hamstring him in a myriad of ways. Nicolas has a history of living well while his brother’s family starves, but now stoops to a new low by refusing to help with the cost of disguising and repairing Raymond’s taxi. Though Raymond is sure the Tonton Macoute will find him in short order, he is unwilling to listen to a high-minded lecture on his flawed life choices. Yet Nicolas, true to form, wants to lecture but not actually help his brother. He also lectures his students on human rights abuses, for example, without thinking about potential consequences. Worse still, he has been recently at work on a book manuscript in which he proves the regime murdered writer Jacques Stephen Alexis. Nicolas imagines that his manuscript will be published in secret and distributed widely outside of Haiti, displaying for the world the repression of the Duvalier regime. He also imagines that he and his family will be able to quietly escape Haiti, and that his colleagues can be trusted to help. Yet Nicolas, trusting as he is, underestimates the power of fear and intimidation on even the most rational of people. Like many in that time and place, Nicolas disappears into the dreaded Fort Dimanche, where some of the novel’s most harrowing of scenes take place. I don’t want to reveal much beyond this point, except to say that Josaphat prompts the reader to ask Raymond’s question of every character and at every step: What kind of man was he? Can Raymond still think of himself as a decent man if he isn’t helping those who need it? What kind of man is Nicolas, underneath the education, money and prestige? What kind of person can anyone be under such dire circumstances?
Josaphat keeps her storytelling lens trained on the brothers. This makes for a novel that is both intimate and tightly plotted, though I wondered often about the stories of those outside of the main action. There’s a compelling cast of characters whose stories I was eager to follow even further. Eve and Yvonne, for example, are the wives of the L’Eveillé brothers, and their own choices propel them far afield. Each probably warrants her own novel, but I wanted more here: more flesh and detail, and more than a quick sketch provided in the epilogue. In addition, readers should be aware that this book covers some emotionally challenging ground, particularly in the torture and interrogation scenes. Still Josaphat makes it worth the reader’s while in the end. Given the decades of brutal repression under Papa Doc and his son, it wasn’t difficult to imagine an ending to the story that obliterated hope. It speaks to Josaphat’s skill, however, that this story leads to a place of hope and reconciliation.
During his self-appointed tenure as President for Life, Duvalier affected the dress, voice and mannerisms associated with Baron Samedi, the loa of Haitian Vodou associated with death, and the baron referred to in the book’s title. This Duvalier — the one with the flair for the theatrical, who insisted bullets couldn’t hurt him because he was already an immaterial being, and who ordered that every black dog be killed based on a rumor that his enemy could transform into one — garners much attention in conversations about Duvalier. While Duvalier’s reputation is explored in detail in Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, Josaphat doesn’t let the baron steal the show. Instead, she offers her readers a tightly-plotted historical drama firmly situated in the realities of surviving under Duvalier.
Melissa Oliveira grew up in central Connecticut and holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.