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Breath, Eyes, Memory (Oprah's Book Club) Paperback – May 18, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

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

From Publishers Weekly

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. Paperback rights to Vintage; author tour.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 234 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (May 31, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037570504X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375705045
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (302 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #93,877 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and came to the United States when she was twelve years old. She graduated from Barnard College and received an M.F.A. from Brown University. She made an auspicious debut with her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and followed it with the story collection Krik? Krak!, whose National Book Award nomination made Danticat the youngest nominee ever. She lives in New York.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

55 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Dianna Setterfield on May 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
Wow. A pause while I catch my breath...
Edwidge Danticat has written an exceptional and beautifully crafted novel about a young Haitian girl and the family of women that surround her. A somber, spiritual story told with a feverish tenacity that will bewitch you and leave you aching for more from this talented and gifted writer.
After twelve years of being raised in Haiti by her aunt Atie, young Sophie Caco has been summoned by her mother to join her in New York. Sophie is terrified and does not want to go, especially since she does not remember her mother, who left Haiti when Sophie was just a baby. What follows is a painful rendering of horrifying secrets and Haitian tradition that deeply affects Sophie and the way she lives her life. Finally, frantic for justification and healing, Sophie turns to her homeland for the answers and refuge she so desperately needs.
The flow of the writing is smooth and lyrical, like music that rolls off the tongue. There is just enough description to make vivid pictures, but not too much to overwhelm. I do find it lacking in the development of the relationship between Sophie and her mother, although not enough to interrupt the beauty and quality of the story. Readers will be awed at the strong determination of the Caco women and the unbreakable bonds that hold them together. A very poetic and powerful novel that mixes a family, their culture, and a country in the midst of political upheaval. Breath, Eyes, Memory is extraordinary.
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By mirope on May 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
I truly enjoyed the first third of this book. Edwidge Danticat is a talented writer whose lyrical prose effectively transports the reader into the rhythms Haitian life. The imagery is powerful and can be profoundly moving. Unfortunately, I found that this promising start was irrevocably marred by the overblown ending. Issues that Danticat addresses in the last half of the book include rape, sexual abuse, bulimia, abortion and breast cancer. Any one or even two of these issues would have given the story the dramatic punch the author was looking for. Two very marginal characters - one with genital mutilation and one with a history of incest - read like they were added to the story just to cover all the bases of female degredation. There are so many ingredients in this stew of suffering that the reader is unable feel completely sympathetic to the victim of any one. My predominant response to this book was disappointment that it didn't live up to its promising beginning.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Diane on March 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
I enjoyed this book and the depth to which the author delves in order to allow us to have a glimpse into the life of a Haitian woman. Sophie is at the heart of this novel and we see her growing up with her aunt, in Haiti, while her mother lives in the U.S. Suddenly, Sophie is called for, by her mother, and she must go to a country that is foreign to her and live with a woman she doesn't know. Sophie then learns the truth about her birth and the trauma that her mother has endured for years while at the same time learning to become a woman in her own right.
The only flaw I can find in this book is that more character development was needed. I wanted to learn more about the aunt that raised her and the relationship between Sophie and her mother was never fully examined.
The writing however was beautiful and I enjoyed that aspect of it immensely. Danticat makes each of us realize that family can give us much strength but we need to make the change within ourself in order to become a stronger person. Sometimes a cycle within a family needs to be broken. Thankfully Sophie realizes this power and seizes it.
Definitely a novel worth the read.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Orrin C. Judd VINE VOICE on October 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is less a novel than a string of episodes from a young Haitian woman's life and I enjoyed the first two sections, but was really disappointed as the writer lost control of her text in the later stages. The story starts in Haiti where twelve year old Sophie has been raised by her aunt, Tante Atie, while her mother supports the family with a job in New York. But now her mother wants Sophie to come and join her. There's a beautifully detailed portrait of country life in Haiti here and the separation of Sophie and Atie is genuinely heart rending.
The next section details the tentative first steps of Sophie and her mother as they feel out the parameters of a mother-daughter relationship. This is complicated by the fact that Sophie was the product of her mother being raped as a teenager by a Tonton Macout.
This transition from Haiti to New York is fine and would be a solid basis for a novel, but Danticat now starts skipping forward in large chunks of time. Suddenly, Sophie is 18 and enamored of an older neighbor who is a musician. Her scandalized mother begins to probe her nightly to establish that she has maintained her virginity. Tempers explode and we skip ahead again. Sophie has married the musician and had a child, but she's estranged from her mother, has developed sexual phobias and has fled to Haiti with her child. From here the novel descends into all the worst topicality of the 90's and we see how it made Oprah's Book Club. We're immersed in bulimia, sexual dysfunction, female genital mutilation, therapy, suicide, etc.
Ultimately, after a strong and promising beginning, I have to say that the author lost me. I appreciated the opportunity to be exposed to a side of Haitian life that we rarely see, but then we're buried in a blizzard of psychoblither. I expect to see better from this author in the future.
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