The Company of Heaven: Stories from Haiti
Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell's collection of short stories, The Company of Heaven, is an unkind narrative of Haiti and Haitians. It is unkind in the way one can be unkind when recalling a sibling’s awkward puberty or seeing for the first time, the humiliation of a parent by a stranger in a public place. She is unkind to her Haitians and yet she remains a family member, intimately invested and loyal. It is difficult to like even one of her characters, however, it is even more difficult to look away from them.
In "Meat," a stranger stranded at the airport in Boston describes the contents of her suitcase. Cooked meat to delight her undernourished relatives in Haiti for at least a week. The traveler cannot stop returning to Haiti and yet she describes a mean Haiti where dog fights dog and even goat, and family members are picked up off the street by masked men and discovered decomposing in sewage holes.
The living are also decomposing: there is sickness in Haiti and Phipps-Kettlewell rarely distinguishes between mental, spiritual and physical corrosion. There is cancer, old age, the lust for little girls, insanity, and AIDS too—a disease that wipes out a circle of beautiful boys and men in the story "River Valley Rooms." The narrator mourns in rooms inhabited by decaying family and filthy dogs. The narrator has returned from the US and becomes the reluctant heir to her late father’s patriarchy: spying on her brother Justin and her mother and saving them from an encroaching army of parasites siphoning off the illusory remains of the family wealth and status.
And yet Phipps-Kettlewell’s characters are not caricatures of rich and poor in a poor country. Neither the poor or the rich are noble, and the power (im)balance between the two fluctuates within each story. Phipps-Kettlewell never allows the servants, workers, guards, gardeners and other dependents of the masters to be powerless. In "Down by the River," it is the servant Venant who carries the collapsed patriarch Misye Emanyèl from his shower and hands him his teeth. There are the legion of servants who attend Misye Emanyèl’s funeral bringing their children and grandchildren: "They were there to bury our dead. We were never there to bury theirs."
The servants and poor Haitians are at the disposal of the elite, they stoke the masters’ vanities, witness their follies and also fan their paranoia. In "Land," a woman who describes herself as French and proud of it, is swindled and threatened by Sasal, her son’s poor friend, in a land deal gone wrong. Sasal is sick of ‘these bourgeois’ but accepts their money. In "Down by the River," the daughter recently bereaved by her father’s death seduces a poor child with a new dress, running water and the promise of America—she steals her away from an impoverished but devastated surrogate mother. And in "Marie Ange’s Ginen," a wily American immigrant returns to his community and extorts a travel fee from friends desperate to flee poverty. The vessel to America is overcrowded, poorly constructed and destined to sink. And yet an old mother boards it and makes a pact with death, with the ocean, with ocean zombies, that she may be taken but that her daughter must survive and escape misery.
Phipps-Kettlewell’s stories describe poor people, even her rich prose cannot conceal their poverty of both spirit and pocket. Her narrators do not conceal depravity, failure, perversion, grief, and longing. As a result, her fiction cannot be conventionally beautiful... but it is true.