Sunday, January 24, 2010

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Book Details
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Paperback, 256 pages
1998, Vintage
ISBN: 037570504X

A distinctive new voice with a sensitive insight into Haitian culture distinguishes this graceful debut novel about a young girl's coming of age under difficult circumstances. "I come from a place where breath, eyes and memory are one, a place where you carry your past like the hair on your head," says narrator Sophie Caco, ruminating on the chains of duty and love that bind the courageous women in her family. The burden of being a woman in Haiti, where purity and chastity are a matter of family honor, and where "nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms," is Danticat's theme. Born after her mother Martine was raped, Sophie is raised by her Tante Atie in a small town in Haiti. At 12 she joins Martine in New York, while Atie returns to her native village to care for indomitable Grandmother Ife. Neither Sophie nor Martine can escape the weight of the past, resulting in a pattern of insomnia, bulimia, sexual trauma and mental anguish that afflicts both of them and leads inexorably to tragedy. Though her tale is permeated with a haunting sadness, Danticat also imbues it with color and magic, beautifully evoking the pace and character of Creole life, the feel of both village and farm communities, where the omnipresent Tontons Macoute mean daily terror, where voudon rituals and superstitions still dominate even as illiterate inhabitants utilize such 20th-century conveniences as cassettes to correspond with emigres in America. In simple, lyrical prose enriched by an elegiac tone and piquant observations, she makes Sophie's confusion and guilt, her difficult assimilation into American culture and her eventual emotional liberation palpably clear.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is the story of the suffering of three women bound by family ties. It was strongly emotional with some heavy themes. The repercussions of rape, the cultural value of virginity and how mothers routinely sexually abuse their daughters in order to preserve their honor were all covered in great detail. The descriptions of Haitian culture both in Haiti and in the United States were fascinating.

The book flowed well and held my interest much more than I expected. The ending was filled with sadness and quite unexpected. Breath, Eyes, Memory was not my usual fare, but it was very good and more than a little eye-opening.



  1. Great sounds really deep, and I think I should allow more books like this into my repertoire :)

  2. I read this one before I started blogging and really enjoyed it as well. I've been meaning to read more by this author but haven't had the chance to yet. Great review!

  3. This seems a timely read considering that all eyes are on Haiti right now. I'm thinking of picking it up. Glad you reviewed it!