Beating Windward Press
[REVIEWED BY HOLLY HUITT]
MJ Fievre’s first English language book opens with a blast of swirling, sticky, language so descriptive and powerful you’ll break a sweat before you’re one paragraph in.
“Port-au-Prince, Haiti—where the sun burned, and the clouds didn’t break into rain. Collars melted against necks and Eskimo ice creams melted down hands. Grass withered. Madansara birds fell into parched silence. Taptap and kamyonèt shot by, honking, and the clouds of dust they stirred up took hours to settle.”
A Sky the Color of Chaos is the author’s own story, set in a politically unstable and dangerous Haiti where gunshots and power outages are a part of daily life. Fievre begins with seven-year-old Jessica (as she calls herself in the memoir) who lives in an apartment in the thick of Port-au-Prince where she wastes no time introducing the unpredictable violence both in the streets and in her home. Jessica’s abusive father is central to the book, and so much of her world revolves around him as she grows up in their middle class home, as a student in a strict but encouraging Catholic school, and later, as a rebellious teen in the rusted out cars of her teenage boyfriends. Jessica’s coming-of-age is darker than most, not only because it is set in the turbulent landscape of Haiti, but also because she grows from a child who both loves and needs love from her father, to a pre-teen who despises him and fears she is like him, to a young adult who realizes that, as her mother tells her early on, “Things are not always black and white.”
The most remarkable thing by far in Fievre’s memoir is the rich language, written with a poet’s ear and eye for description and rhythm. Fievre’s astonishing similies and metaphors, heaped upon each other for paragraphs at a time are dazzling, like this passage about her sister, Soeur:
“I looked a Soeur in the stutters and twitches of sleep, her arms in disarray like fish confused by waves. Her body flinched, and it clicked, and it dreamed. The flickering of eyelids, like moths that slowed their flight before landing.”
Even the most gruesome passages, where a young Jessica is confronting death—the burning of a man in the street, the stack of decomposing bodies in the morgue, are painful and lovely. The backdrops of Jessica’s life shine with incredible clarity and heart.
Fievre’s beautiful language is sadly absent from the lengthy footnotes that sometimes creep across multiple pages, informing the reader of historical facts in a professorial tone that seems at odds with the rest of the book. There is an obvious urge to cover a vast amount of information in a relatively short time, both in the footnotes and the way Fievre races through the years, sometimes devoting an entire few years to a single short-paged chapter. In particular, we speed by the moment when Jessica’s father goes from raging, controlling patriarch to indulgent, checked-out father who allows drinking, partying, and much free time with boys. Jessica the narrator is, rightfully so, caught up in the heightened drama of being a teenager in Haiti, where your love interest could also be a member of a deadly, torturous secret police force. But, it is still a shame that the core tension of the story—that of her relationship with her father—fizzles out so soundlessly.
The description of Jessica’s three boyfriends, each wonderful and threatening in their own way, come fast and indulgently, and they are a pleasure to experience. Fievre taps into the emotional and physical experience of being a teenager, with descriptions of Jessica’s inner turmoil that are both highly specific to her and universal at once. It is hard to read them and not feel tinges of recognition at the angst and attempts at self-realization that come with teenage years. She writes masterfully of emotion, giving concrete weight to words that are otherwise just floating, fluttering ideas.
Even if A Sky the Color of Chaos were only the story of a remarkable girl surviving and overcoming violent and overwhelming odds to reach her dream, it would be worth a read. But it is also an incredible portrait of Haiti in a time where much of the world only associates the country with its devastating earthquake. It is tough and wistful and empowering all at once. In other words, it’s the kind of book that you could (and should) read over and over again.