Breath, eyes, memory

by Edwidge Danticat

Paperback, 1994




New York : Soho Press, c1994.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member katiekrug
”She told me about a group of people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads. They are the people of Creation. Strong, tall, and mighty people who can bear anything. Their Maker, she said, gives them the sky to carry because they are strong. These people do not know who they are, but if you
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see a lot of trouble in your life, it is because you were chosen to carry part of the sky on your head.” (p. 25)

Breath, Eyes, Memory is Danticat’s first novel, and while it suffers from some familiar flaws of first novels, it rises above those to tell a painful and beautiful story of family and women in Haiti. There are many layers to the story – the immigrant experience in New York, political violence in Haiti, maternal love, duty to family – and all are told in a rich prose that I imagine, were it tangible, would have the consistency of a thick, sweet caramel.

”Great gods in Guinea, you are beautiful,” [he] said… “I would crawl inside your dress and live there. I can feed on your beauty like a leech feeds on blood. I would live and die for you. More than the sky loves its stars. More than the night loves its moon. More than the sea loves its mermaids. Strike me, thunder, it’s no lie. We do not know one another, I know. Still I must tell you. You can be the core of my existence. The ‘I’ of my ‘We.’ The first and last letter of my name, which is ‘Yours,’…” (p. 93)

Sophie is twelve when she leaves the only home she has ever known – with her aunt in a village in Haiti – to go to her mother in New York City. But always there is Haiti, both a country and a legacy, which informs their lives and their relationship and whose traditions and superstitions cause a rift between mother and daughter. Eventually, Sophie returns to Haiti with her baby daughter, and this part of the novel with Sophie, her aunt, and her grandmother, was probably my favorite. We are treated to Haitian folk tales, religion, cooking, and other aspects of everyday life. It was both fascinating and heartbreaking.

The end of the novel was less successful for me, as it seemed Danticat felt the need to throw in as many “women’s issues” as possible – abortion, bulimia, suicide, female genital mutilation – in order to indicate the Importance of her story. Unfortunately, her story needed very little else than what it already had; what could have been a 4.75 or 5 star read for me suffered from this debut author’s over-enthusiasm.

Other passages I liked:

“I felt broken at the end of the meeting, but a little closer to being free. I didn’t feel guilty about burning my mother’s name anymore. I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain and if she hurt me, it was because she was hurt, too. It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire. It was up to me to make sure that my daughter never slept with ghosts, never lived with nightmares, and never had her name burnt in flames.” (p. 203)

”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. My mother was as brave as stars at dawn. She too was from this place. My mother was like that woman who could never bleed and then could never stop bleeding, the one who gave in to her pain, to live as a butterfly. Yes, my mother was like me.” (p. 234)
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LibraryThing member lit_chick
“One time I asked her how was that I was born with a mother and no father. She told me the story of a little girl who was born out of the petals of roses, water from the stream, and a chunk of the sky. That little girl, she said was me." (47)

Sophie Caco, raised by her Tante Atie in a small
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Haitian village, is summoned to her mother in New York at the age of twelve – a mother she only barely remembers. There, she will learn secrets that no young girl should need to bear – secrets which have caused her mother to live a legacy of shame, and which Sophie had been protected from in Haiti. And she will be subjected by her mother to the an age-old Haitian tradition which becomes Sophie’s shame, and which creates a long and resentful rift in the mother-daughter relationship – one that cannot be healed until Sophie returns to Haiti with her infant daughter, to the women who first raised her and loved her: Grandmother Ife and Tante Atie.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is Danticat’s engaging debut novel about several generations in a family of Haitian women. The novel’s strength is in its exploration of how the women come together to reconcile their Haitian roots – particularly the practices which inhibit women – with their hopes and dreams for a better future, for Sophie and for Brigitte, her infant daughter. Other readers have pointed out, and I agree, that the novel’s conclusion is a weak spot, but this is forgiven in a new writer. Recommended!

Beautiful Quotes:
"The men in this area, they insist that their women are virgins and have ten fingers. According to Tante Atie, each finger had a purpose. It was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn't her fault, she said. Her ten fingers had been named for her even before she was born. Sometimes, she even wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have two left for herself." (151)

“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. My mother was as brave as stars at dawn. She too was from this place. My mother was like that woman who could never bleed and then could never stop bleeding, the one who gave in to her pain, to live as a butterfly. Yes, my mother was like me.” (234)
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LibraryThing member riofriotex
I picked up this book at a Friends of the Library fill-the-box-for-$5 sale, probably grabbing it because of the intriguing title. It had been sitting in my TBR shelves for a while, and as it was short, I decided to give it a try. I was extremely disappointed.

The book is set partly in Haiti and
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partly in the eastern United States, and focuses on three generations of women: Sophia, her mother Martine and aunt Atie, and grandmother Ife. The characters are one-dimensional and the plot is boring. Danticat works in all sorts of feminist issues: rape, genital mutilation, virginity, sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, there isn't enough description of Haiti and life there, which might have redeemed the book for me. Not recommended.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[This book was purchased at a Friends of the Library book sale, and it will be donated back to be re-sold.]
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LibraryThing member bell7
Sophie Caco lives with her Tante Atie in Haiti, while her mother Martine is in New York. At the age of twelve, Sophie goes to New York to live with her mother and learns a dark secret that affects her relationship with her mother.

This is a harrowing book. While the Caco women - Sophie, Martine,
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Atie, and Ife (Sophie's grandmother) - are all strong, they all have heartbreak and hurt, and hurt each other. Sophie's first-person narration means you see the world through her eyes, and don't always realize the perspectives of the other characters until Sophie herself does. Danticat's writing is poetic and evocative. It's a well-crafted story that I would have enjoyed writing about as an English major, but it's so heartrending that I couldn't enjoy it.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
"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."

This novel is the story of Sophie Caco, a Haitian woman raised by her aunt until the age of 12, when she goes to live with her mother in New York City. Each of the
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novel's four parts deals with a different period in Sophie's life: her childhood in Haiti, early adulthood in New York City, a visit back to Haiti a couple years later, and events following that visit. Central to Sophie's story are her matriarchal relationships: her grandmother; her aunt, Tante Atie, who never married and feels duty-bound to care for her own mother; and Sophie's mother Martine, who conceived Sophie as a result of being raped by a Macoute (a member of Francois Duvalier's militia). Martine has never overcome the emotional damage caused by the rape, and while she loves Sophie, finds it difficult to be in relationship with her. Sophie herself bears significant scars from "testing," a traumatic practice, passed down from generation to generation, in which mothers physically verify their daughters' virginity. Much of the novel is devoted to the delicate balance inhernet in mother-daughter relationships, and in this case heightened by traumatic experiences.

Danticat's debut novel is tightly written and offers insight into rural Haitian culture and, to a limited degree, the conditions during Duvalier's time in power. I am looking forward to reading more of Danticat's work.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
I started out liking this less than The Farming of Bones and ended up liking it more. Initially, in this first novel, Danticat struggles to find her feet a little, to avoid exoticizing her people and her past in an Oprah's Book Club way, to do justice in writing to what are clearly to some degree
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thinly fictionalized personal experiences without laying on the infinitude of quivering fear and joy they represent with a trowel. Things calm down a little when her protagonist leaves Haiti--it seems clear where the seed of The Farming of Bones comes from, in that the historical novel and the memoir in Breath, Eyes, Memory seem to be pulling in opposite directions.

And from then on she seduces with a quiet, heartbreaking sincerity. It stops being a book about Haiti for Americans and becomes a story about pain, migration away from pain, the pull back home, and pathology across generations. By the time we return to Haiti we are riveted by the story, and the setting becomes less overpowering, an essential element of a very particular family tale but also one in balance with the other elements in what is a universal story too. No longer is the setting overpowering in its intentional strangeness, and that does the setting as well as the protagonist's family justice; we start to explore on our own the history of the family in context as Danticat reveals it with an increasingly sensitive hand and to understand what it means that this is a Haitian story too. And by the end, she could sell us a bridge in Brookyn if she wants, but instead she sells us that most difficult thing, hope salvaged from despair, in a way that feels like it has integrity.
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LibraryThing member grheault
This was my third Edwidge Danticat book, so you can call me a fan. Great portrait of extended family in poverty dominated Haitian village, and of Haitian diaspora in New York City. This book is a series of extended vignettes of a sweet little girl raised by her adored Tante Atie from infancy to
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twelve years old in a Haitian village, then transported to NYC where she has been sent for by her troubled mother, a refugee from violence and poverty. The vignettes skip over the high school years, and jump to adulthood and marriage. This missing piece eaves you wondering how the girl became the woman who returns as a mother with infant, to her beloved Tante Atie, and reconciles conflicts with her own mother, her own history and her culture's customs regarding female sexuality.
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LibraryThing member astrologerjenny
Loved this book - beautifully written, true, real.
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Read this for a lit class... yeesh... pretty horrendous what adults do to children, huh?
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Edwidge Danticat does an amazing job blending the culture of Haiti with the culture of family with the dynamics of women intertwined. Breath, Eyes, Memory is the story of four generations of Haitian women. Sophie is at the center. As a new mother she is learning from her mother, grandmother and
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aunt what it means to be protective and watchful of her young daughter while daring to shrug off disturbing traditions that haunt all the women in her family. This is not a story for the faint of heart. While the harsh realities of Haiti's Tonton Macoute are barely mentioned they are the root of Sophie's mother's nightmares. There is murder, cancer, mental illness, bulemia, abuse and even suicide to contend with within the pages of Breath, Eyes, Memory. In the end there is a certain kind of peace that only comes from a letting go.
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LibraryThing member goldiebear
I really enjoyed this book. The characters were very fullfilling. I loved the Magical Realism touch to it. It was beautifully written, but bordered just a bit on chick lit. That's okay though, it was still a great, quick read. I am looking forward to reading Danticat's other book, Krick, Krack.
LibraryThing member ladybug74
I enjoyed this book, which was a quick read, until the very end. At the end of the book, it seemed like everything was ended too abruptly. The whole "testing" the daughter thing was horrible, especially from a mom who was sexually assaulted and knows what it's like to be violated. This made me
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think of a paper I had to write for graduate school about female genital mutilation. Despite the disappointing ending, I did like this book well enough to try other books by the same author.
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LibraryThing member MatthewHittinger
I thought about giving this five stars, but the Oprah-esque afterword she slapped on it in 1999 ruined it for me.
LibraryThing member pussreboots
Beautifully lyrical and full of hope even during personal tragedy but the ending takes all that building emotion and dashes it. The ending spoiled the book for me. It seemed unnecessarily tragic -- tragic just for the sake of being tragic.
LibraryThing member jaybee2008
it was good, but i think it could have been great if it were longer. the story jumps around a lot and i think it would have been an awesome epic 400+ page book. also, i wonder if the story is true. the seemingly random bulimia issue makes me think it is.
LibraryThing member chickletta
Not as good as Dew Breaker. The best part of the prose comes on the absolute last page of the book, the one that ties breath, eyes and memory into the history of the Haiti. By then it's almost too late to redeem it.
LibraryThing member Clurb
As well as calling attention to the political and social differences between Haiti and North America, Danticat manages to introduce a character who it is possible to care passionately about as we watch her struggle and adapt to her new situation. I first read this as a teenager and have found that
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the coming-of-age aspects of this book have stuck with me and left a lasting impression.
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LibraryThing member bridgetZsweet
Intriguing but in parts I felt like Danticat was "telling" rather than "showing" - regardless you think about this book after you finnish it.
LibraryThing member pegmcdaniel
This is a lovely, beautifully written, novel about a 12-year-old girl (Sophie) from Haiti, her life there, moving to the US and growing up in NYC. There are three strong generations of women who endure hardships, love, loss, poverty, brutality and disturbing cultural practices. The author was only
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24 when she wrote this debut novel. She uses simple words to describe deep emotions, relationships, and settings. Made me feel as though I was right there with Sophie during her times of joy and sadness.

I'll remember this book for a long time, it's that magical!! Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Feleciak
Breathe, Eyes, Memory

2 Stars


The beginning was promising. The relationship between Tante Atie and the protagonist Sophie was heartfelt but the book weakened considerably after Sophie's move to the United States. The characters introduced were not fleshed out, making it very hard for me
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to care for them. Too many situations that were scarcely reconciled. Too many unanswered questions that left me wondering the point of it all.
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LibraryThing member mdials
3 generations of Haitian women share a secret custom that haunts their lives....Great Book!
LibraryThing member snash
A tale of women across 4 generations dealing with old traditional virginity safeguards. Learning to honor the pluses of their Haitian culture while breaking the chain of abuse. Also a tale of forgiveness.
LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
A touching, crushing glimpse at the mother-daughter relationship and the matrilineal heritage every woman carries inside. Danticat is a remarkable writer.
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
There's a certain kind of reader that prefers novels about the interpersonal problems of couples who live in New York City or London. There's a certain kind of reader who likes books that contain characters that they can describe as "relatable." "Breath, Eyes, Memory" is not a book for those kind
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of readers. Like Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart", it's a novel that's filled with characters who love to tell stories but may never have picked up a novel in their lives. Split between rural Haiti and the grimy, dangerous parts of New York, there probably isn't much that middle-class native English speakers will be able to directly relate to here. During the scenes set in Haiti, its characters speak in a folk dialect so dense with metaphor and allusion that they might as well be reciting poetry to one another. The figurative language here is often extremely beautiful, but, as it seems awkawrdly translated from Creole or French, it often sits rather uncomfortably on the page, which is, I'd wager, exactly the effect the author sought to create. I liked it, but I imagine that some readers will find it too strange, others almost quaint. The scenes set in Reagan-era New York are, in contrast, enormously blunt about the pain and disorientation of the immigrant experience: the mental trauma that its characters feel is often so great that they often seem hardly able to fully acknowledge, never mind express, their confusion. While the parts of the book set in Haiti show how tight-knit Haitian families and rural communities can be, this human connection doesn't often seem to offer much comfort to anyone: the author is not at all interested in sparing the reader the details the place's overwhelming poverty. In "Breath, Eyes, Memory," life is, above all, hard and unforgiving, and involves one loss or disappointment after another.

Things do get better, though. The main character's family somehow manages to edge up into the American middle class. She meets a love interest so enormously likable that you wonder what he's doing in the novel at all, though her problems don't exactly disappear as soon as he makes his entrance. Her voice grows and matures as she does, and her and the reader's understanding of the books other characters also grows as the book moves forward, even as their pain lingers. But "Breath, Eyes, Memory" never quite stops seeming like an attempt -- if a fairly successful one -- to use the novelistic form to describe a sort of human experience that has, historically, been almost completely foreign to it. This, too, may or may not please its readers, and will probably lose some completely. Danticat, to her credit, doesn't seem much inclined to put any of her first world readers on familiar ground: "Breath, Eyes, Memory" feels like it's told on her terms.

Men are largely absent from the book, and there are times where it seems that the author is deliberately trying to portray life in this Haitian family as centered on communal, specifically female experience. There are times when the main character and her mother seem to strike a hard-fought balance between the culture that produced them and their later experiences. But it's never easy, and, as good as this novel can be, it's seldom a reassuring or comfortable read. It's an often poetic novel about the hard realities of survival in tough places. It's unlike most novels I've ever read, and won't be everybody's cup of tea. Even so, I'd recommend it to everyone but the readers mentioned at the beginning of my review.
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LibraryThing member steller0707
This was a hard book to read - four Haitian women, strong but powerless to escape their life circumstances. Grandmother, two sisters and a granddaughter, bearing separate burdens and carrying tales of tradition, abuse and neglect. They both hurt and grieve for each other. It's a beautifully written
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story carrying some hope in "breath, eyes and their memory."
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