At an astonishingly young age, Edwidge Danticat has become one of our most celebrated new novelists, a writer who evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti–and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women–with a vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.
At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti–to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence, in a novel that bears witness to the traditions, suffering, and wisdom of an entire people.
Oprah Book Club® Selection, May 1998: “I come from a place where breath, eyes and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head. Where women return to their children as butterflies or as tears in the eyes of the statues that their daughters pray to.” The place is Haiti and the speaker is Sophie, the heroine of Edwidge Danticat’s novel, “Breath, Eyes, Memory.” Like her protagonist, Danticat is also Haitian; like her, she was raised in Haiti by an aunt until she came to the United States at age 12. Indeed, in her short stories, Danticat has often drawn on her background to fund her fiction, and she continues to do so in her debut novel.
The story begins in Haiti, on Mother’s Day, when young Sophie discovers that she is about to leave the only home she has ever known with her Tante Atie in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti, to go live with her mother in New York City. These early chapters in Haiti are lovely, subtly evoking the tender, painful relationship between the motherless child and the childless woman who feels honor bound to guard the natural mother’s rights to the girl’s affections above her own. Presented with a Mother’s Day card, Tante Atie responds: “‘It is for a mother, your mother.’ She motioned me away with a wave of her hand. ‘When it is Aunt’s Day, you can make me one.'” Danticat also uses these pages to limn a vibrant portrait of life in Haiti from the cups of ginger tea and baskets of cassava bread served at community potlucks to the folk tales of a “people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads.”
With Sophie’s transition from a fairly happy existence with her aunt and grandmother in rural Haiti to life in New York with a mother she has never seen, Danticat’s roots as a short-story writer become more evident; “Breath, Eyes, Memory” begins to read more like a collection of connected stories than a seamlessly evolved novel. In a couple of short chapters, Sophie arrives in New York, meets her mother, makes the acquaintance of her mother’s new boyfriend, Marc, and discovers that she was the product of a rape when her mother was a teenager in Haiti. The novel then jumps several years ahead to Sophie’s graduation from high school and her infatuation with an older man who lives next door. Unfortunately, this is also the point in the novel where Danticat begins to lay her themes on with a trowel instead of a brush: Sophie’s mother becomes obsessed with protecting her daughter’s virginity, going so far as to administer physical “tests” on a regular basis–testing which leads eventually to a rift in their relationship and to Sophie’s struggle with her own sexuality. Soon the litany of victimization is flying thick and fast: female genital mutilation, incest, rape, frigidity, breast cancer, and abortion are the issues that arise in the final third of the novel, eventually drowning both fine writing and perceptive characterization under a deluge of angst.
Still, there is much to admire about “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” and if at times the plot becomes overheated, Danticat’s lyrical, vivid prose offers some real delight. If nothing else, this novel is sure to entice readers to look for Danticat’s short stories–and possibly to sample other fiction from the West Indies as well. –Alix Wilber
“Danticat has created a stirring tale of life in two worlds: the spirit-rich land of her ancestry, whose painful themes work their way through lives across generational lines, and her adopted country, the United States, where a young immigrant girl must negotiate cold, often hostile terrain, even as she spars with painful demons of her past.”–Emerge
Top customer reviews
This is a book that I first had to read as a summer reading book when I was in high school, I didn’t know what to expect but once I started reading the book I was hooked and couldn’t put the book down. This book will make you sympathize with the main character’s pain, struggles, and etc. When I first got the book it was the paperback version but I loved this book so much that when I saw the hardcopy available I had to buy it cause this is one of those books you cant forget.
Well-written, engaging; just not fully enjoyable. For some reason, lost in history, different cultures have placed a high, (I would say ridiculously high), value on a woman’s chasity. Herein it plays a overweening role in driving people’s lives, ruining these lives – and why? It appears to me the purpose of this ‘rule’ is to give others a feeling of control/power.
At its most basic level, we have a woman who feels so bad due to an act, rape, committed against her will while a teen, that she finds it almost impossible to have a normal life. How did society get to a place where the act of rape could & does so totally destroy a person’s soul?!?
Just over a millenium ago, a finding of guilty to the charge of rape got the perpetrator a fine – it did not get the victim a lifetime of grief, despair & self-loaving. Why this change in attitude? Except as a titillation device in books, TV & movies, I do not see how it helps anyone. And if nothing else this book proves this point.
Over 70 years ago, a great aunt of mine hid her three daughters from, first the Germans/Nazis, then the Russians & lastly the Americans as her city, Berlin endured WWII – she herslf was not spared by any of the occuppying/freedom forces; but, she didn’t let these acts determine her life.
Indeed, at war’s end she remarried, moved to the new world & lived a full life as mother, wife, grandmother, sister; but, not as a victim.
I am not saying that rape is not a horrific act (after all, my great aunt went to great lengths to protect her children); but I feel today’s culture has made it out to be something so monstrous all else pales in its wake… Society has gotten to the point where not only are different sexual persuasions acceptable but both sexes are allowed to enjoy the act – a far cry from the advice to lay back & think of England. So is the current attitude to rape a last grasp at male superiority/domination in this sphere – it cannot be just the titillation thing – though I do see the financial angle, in books, movies, TV shows & computer games that accrue from this warped POV – or can it be that simple?
So why the 4*s – 1st. there is no way to give 3 1/2 stars, which I feel is what the novel deserves. As I have said, it is well-written, it also provides a good look at modern day Haiti along with some of the history of that long-suffering island. Indeed, it sparked me to check out Haiti in Wikipedia (which because of my Kindle, I can do without leaving the comfort of my lazyboy). But for me, it just did not answer, satisfactorily, all the questions the story had raised in my mind; ergo the 3 1/2 stars. All in all, I would still recommend this book, especially to a bookclub.