My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There’s an essay to be written on book-shaming, the practice of establishing your own superiority by reacting in disbelief when someone doesn’t like a book you think is a classic, or even worse when someone has read a book that you think is a classic and you have read. Moreover, for those of who read books professionally or semi-professionally, book-shame is a perpetual state of being. Aware that we haven’t read what we ought to have read, aren’t keeping up with the infinitude of books that everyone else seems to find the time to read, and, worst of all, that we can’t find it in ourselves to be enthralled with books others so securely tell us really are enthralling.
Throughout the first three-quarters of The Dew Breaker I was underwhelmed and filled with an appropriate sense of book-shame. Clearly there must be something more to this book as it was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist after all, or else there must be something wrong with me. But I couldn’t find myself caring for characters and their incidents and accidents. There were better books about the immigrant experience, about life under dictatorships, better books by Edwidge Danticat. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I was too full of expectation since everyone told me how much I’d love this book, a masterpiece.
I felt this readerly torpor more or less until the final eponymous long story that closes out the novel and brings it full circle. There the language seemed to elevate, the crisis of character because vivid, the human stakes dramatic, and the conflicted, unpredictable, and even unwelcome nature of human love seemed achingly real. It makes the novel as a whole about both guilt and redemption as a former torturer finds his escape in an impossible love. At the same time it makes the novel about the impossible abyss and burden of the past, a force that both drives us toward others with arms flung open seeking forgiveness and makes us shrink from others, impossibly separate in the recognition that we can neither be known or even stand to be known as we truly are.
To be sure, I don’t think I could have gotten all of these reactions without reading the other stories in the cycle of the novel, but only the story, for me, rose to the occasion, or made me rise to the occasion as the case may be. But that fact made me feel I should read the book again. When I am less tired, less full of expectation. So I can get it next time. That is a lot of weight for a single chapter to bear, but it bears it well.