What Storm, What Thunder


Reviewed by Chloe Jorns

What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy, Portland, OR: Tin House, 2021, 313 pages, $17.95

The market woman, the wealthy businessman, the grieving mother, the escort: lives that appear so far disconnected. Yet, Myriam J.A. Chancy’s novel What Storm, What Thunder brings these stories, and others, together. Set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, What Storm, What Thunder immerses readers into the thoughts and lives of various characters, creating an impactful and holistic view of disaster’s effects on a community. Chancy’s own Haitian identity works through the piece to create a work of fiction that is undeniably raw and honest in its basis on the devastating 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince.

Prior to the publishing of What Storm, What Thunder, Chancy had already established herself as a powerful writer. Among her past works are the award-winning novel The Loneliness of Angels, The Scorpian’s Claw, and The Spirit of Haiti. Her novels seem to appeal to lovers of poetic prose and readers who enjoy fiction with deep ties to real-life events.

Hauntingly and beautifully real, What Storm, What Thunder frequently switches between various character perspectives. Chancy manages to transform her voice for every new perspective, building each character with meticulous depth. The novel both starts and ends with the perspective of Ma Lou, a name derived from the endearing way she referred to her husband: “My Lou.” Work as a market woman places Ma Lou at the center of village life. Fair pricing in the market earns her the trust of many. Yet, this trust stems from beyond the honest cost of goods. It is rooted, for many in the community, in her role as a confidant. It is explained that Ma Lou remains fairly quiet regarding her personal life, instead serving as a person who takes in the stories of others, tales of both sorrows and joys. Her position as both the beginning and ending perspective of the novel seems to stress the importance of her role, the importance of the readers’ role: to listen to and learn from the stories of others.

One of the most polarizing stories of the novel is that of Richard, a wealthy businessman hiding from his humble beginnings. His incessant desire to leave his past life behind, to reinvent himself and his image, makes him an intriguing figure for readers. Richard’s character is inherently flawed, and the writing does not shy away from this truth. Yet, Chancy does an impeccable job of giving redeeming moments to some of the book’s most controversial characters. Her writing crafts seemingly “unlikeable” characters in a way that does not entirely withhold them from readers’ sympathy. Richard is the father who left, but he is also the father that grapples with the what-ifs of having stayed.

The structure of What Storm, What Thunder allows readers to gradually feel more immersed in the book’s setting. As the novel progresses, so does the interconnectedness between the characters. Their stories, which in the beginning, might appear separate, begin to bleed together. The granddaughter to Ma Lou becomes Anne: an architect striving to make a change. The brother to Taffia becomes Didier: a man realizing the harsh reality of the American “dream.” Something unique about What Storm, What Thunder is the piece’s inherent lack of “side” or supporting characters. Almost all of the characters mentioned in the story eventually receive their own section of the novel written from their point of view and hold an equal sense of importance in the storyline. This structure reflects the way in which there is no single story of an event. Members of the same community, victims of the same disaster, will all have their own unique responses and challenges.

The novel as a whole speaks to readers’ humanity, to the instinct to sympathize with flawed characters more than the picture-perfect ones, to the tendency to resonate with stories that embrace reality. What Storm, What Thunder proves to be a fitting title for Chancy’s novel. As readers will find, the piece is not really about storms. It is about people. It is about the simultaneous togetherness and solitude of the human experience. Chancy takes on difficult topics such as sexual violence, capitalism, and poverty. And she does so in a way that is both poetic and thought-provoking. What Storm, What Thunder pushes readers to think deeply about their values, their judgments, and the stories of those around them.