The eight stories that comprise “Everything Inside” are simply breathtaking.
Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and lives in Miami, both of which figure in the plots of the majority of the volume’s stories. All but one of the stories are about women. Each story has at its center people who are immigrants for various reasons, immigrants from various levels of society.
The world of each of these stories is the same, however. In the final analysis, it is a world that one of the most heartbreaking stories in the collection describes as a place “where it is normal to be unhappy, to be hungry, to work nonstop and earn next to nothing, and to suffer the whims of everything from tyrants to hurricanes and earthquakes.”
Yet within this world is a sense of the past, a sense of identity and, yes, a sense of love and loss.
In “Dosas,” a nurse’s assistant eventually finds comfort in someone just as wounded as herself after she receives the news that a onetime friend is trapped in Haiti. She accepts all that has happened to her friend and herself, realizing that “sometimes you take detours to get where you need to go.”
“In the Old Days” concerns a young New Yorker who receives a phone call about the father she has never met. She says, movingly, “Miami to me was the beach. Now it will be the place where I would meet my dying father.”
The owner of a small hotel in “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” confronts the AIDS diagnosis of her infant son’s young nanny even as she also faces the false promises that her own life is filled with.
On the Fourth of July, a Miami artist in “The Gift” reconnects with a former lover for the first time since he was injured by the same Haitian earthquake that claimed the lives of his wife and baby daughter.
The exquisite “Hot-Air Balloons” is the simple character study of two college students who come to accept who they are. Says one of them: “I’m going to be the girl who is too easily swayed by other people’s stories.” Says the other: “I am the girl — the woman — who is always going to be looking for stability, a safe harbor.”
In the heart-rending “Sunrise, Sunset,” a grandmother on the cusp of dementia (“waning,” she calls it) attends the christening of her grandson. In sections of alternating points of view, new grandmother and new mother together embrace the ultimate truth of being a parent: “You are always saying hello to them while preparing them to say goodbye to you.”
A writer in “Seven Stories” accepts the invitation from a childhood friend, a former immigrant who is now the bride of a Caribbean Island’s new prime minister. During the visit, both learn of the past and the future, the genuine and the fabricated, and the chaos of life.
“Without Inspection,” the shattering final story, appeared in The New Yorker just last year. A young worker, once a boat immigrant from Haiti, remembers the severity of his past in Haiti as well as in his recent history in this country. The irony is that he is hurtling through the air towards certain death on a construction site:
“He realized he was dying, and that his dying offered him a kind of freedom he’d never had before. Whatever he thought about he could see in front of him. Whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die.”
Intermingling the hard life in her beloved Haiti with the hard lives of her immigrant characters in this country, Edwidge Danticat deftly balances moving, individual calamities and the uncompromising nature of history.
Yet “Everything Inside” is also very much about just what its ingenuous title insists upon: The stories are very much about everything inside, very much about life and love — and very much about how we are destined to collide with who we have been and who we are trying to be.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.