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Breath, Eyes, Memory (Oprah's Book Club) Paperback – May 18, 1998
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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
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The daughter's coming-of-age and emerging sexuality causes the mother to go pretty much off the deep end, first submitted her to humiliating and disturbing "tests", and finally culminating in a (too graphic) act --that, by the way, seemed somewhat improbable. That improbability is why I dropped the rating to a three star. For me, it ruined the book. Some others in my book club did not agree, so don't let this deter you from reading it.
Part one of the novel is written with ignorance and innocence reflective of young children which is fitting as Sophie is not yet a teenager. In the early chapters, Sophie references her love and admiration of daffodils, a bright yellow and white flower brought to Haiti by European settlers. The ever-present image of a daffodil that is presented in Sophie’s poem is a bright and joyful one which contrasts the serious tone of Danticat’s writing. As soon as Sophie is relocated to New York to live with her biological mother, Danticat fast-forwards six years later to eighteen-year-old Sophie’s new home where her “mother had a patch of land in the back where she started growing hibiscus. She had grown tired of daffodils” (Danticat 65). Not only has Sophie aged and changed, but the tone is being altered as well; the reader can visualize the change from bright daffodils to darker, redder hibiscus. Beyond the difference in color between these two flowers, there is also the change in origin and background. Hibiscus is native to Haiti and to other tropical regions and is often used to cure ailments. Martine’s love for a flower indigenous to her homeland could be the attempt to cure both her homesickness and her fears. However, the color of the flower seems to also spark memories and feelings in Martine which trigger anxiety. Again and again the reader is bombarded with images of this house colored in red. Red itself is a bold color, often conjuring images of bloody violence or of love, both of which are present in Danticat’s writing. Red indicates robust passion, a theme that is vital to this novel. This ever-present color serves almost as the subtle life force for the four generations of women; blood, after all, is red, and the same blood courses from Grandme Ifé to her great-granddaughter Brigitte flowing swiftly with the beliefs and memories of the past.
In stark comparison to Danticat’s crimson passion is the importance of chastity to this family. Sophie is subject to “tests” from her mother to ensure she is still a virgin. Often, virginity and purity are associated with the color white, so it is interesting how Martine and Grandme Ifé’s “obsession with keeping [their daughters] pure and chaste” (Danticat 154) is stained with Sophie’s defilement with a pestle and Martine’s rape respectively. The act of stealing each girl’s purity haunts this family, bleeding out onto the image of innocence the family tries to uphold. Issues with intimacy and sex, as well as an inability to continue deep relationships with men, are carried from mother to daughter in the Caco family.
The main issue with Danticat’s narrative is not its subject matter – she pulls from her own knowledge and background of a politically divided, militant Haitian nation – but its utter lack of emotional interaction between the characters. Even through the title, one can assume that not only is the reader going to be immersed in all angles of the action by accessing the sights and the sounds of the landscape but also through interaction with the memories of the people surrounding the protagonist. Sophie merely lays out all of the facts, including those about her mother’s rape and resulting fear of intimacy, never explaining exactly who revealed the story to her. In a novel heavily reliant on the individual stories of each of the matriarchs in the family, Danticat’s emotionally removed style sacrifices strengthening the bonds between her four generations of women.
Most recent customer reviews
I loved this book by Edwidge Danticat, it made me realize a lot of things that go on in Haiti that can really harm someone forever.Read more
I reccommed this to everyone!!!