Breath, eyes, memory

by Edwidge Danticat

Paperback, 1994

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Soho Press, c1994.

Description

At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from the impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York to be reunited with her mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know and where she gains a legacy of shame that can only be healed when she returns to Haiti, to the woman 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 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 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!
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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 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, 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member RebaRelishesReading
Breath, Eyes, Memory was Edwidge Danticat's first novel which was published in 1994. I read it for my face2face book club and discussed it last night (over the delicious fish shown above). Of the seven of us, six really liked it and one found it to be a "soap opera". Count me among those who really liked it (4 1/2 stars worth).

The main character is Sophie, a Haitian girl who is being raised by her aunt while her mother is working in New York. At age 11, Sophie's mother sends for her and her life is changed abruptly. Although Sophie is the main character, the book also presents the story of her mother, her aunt and her grandmother. As the book jacket says, the book "evokes the wonder, terror and heartache of...Haiti -- and the enduring strength of Haiti's women". The main characters are well drawn, the story compelling and the writing beautiful. The only issue the six of us who liked it had with it is that there is one minor character, Louise, who is something of a mystery (why is she there? why does she behave as she does?) but it's a very minor flaw. Here are some samples of the writing:
"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."

"I come from a place where breath, eyes, and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past likethe hair on your head. Where women return to their children ad 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."
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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 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 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 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 nittnut
This one will be on my memorable books list for this year. It is beautifully written. This is a story of Haiti, especially the women of Haiti. It is sweet and tender, and heartbreaking. It asks how a woman can be healed after unthinkable things have happened to her. How she can help passing her pain and sorrow on to her daughters, how she can be free.

Quotes:

There is a difference between what a person wants and what is good for them.

"Do you see that light moving yonder?" she asked, pointing to the traveling lantern. "Do you know why it goes to and fro like that?" She was concentrating on the shift, her pupils traveling with each movement. "It is a baby," she said, "a baby is being born. The midwife is taking trips from the shack to the yard where a pot is boiling. Soon we will know whether it is a boy or a girl."
"How will we know that?"
"If it is a boy, the lantern will be put outside the shack. If there is a man, he will stay awake all night with the new child."
"What if it is a girl?"
"If it is a girl, the midwife will cut the child's cord and go home. Only the mother will be left in the darkness to hold her child. There will be no lamps, no candles, no more light."
We waited. The light went out in the house about an hour later. By that time my grandmother had dozed off. Another little girl had come into the world.

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."
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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 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.… (more)
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 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.… (more)
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 BooksForDinner
Read this for a lit class... yeesh... pretty horrendous what adults do to children, huh?
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 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 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.… (more)
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 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 the coming-of-age aspects of this book have stuck with me and left a lasting impression.… (more)
LibraryThing member sly_wit
I saw a review of this and thought it might be good to read something about Haiti. It was a bit disturbing as a story, but it was interesting and seemed very personal for a novel.
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 kaitanya64
The protagonist of this story is raised by her aunt in Haiti, until her mother sends for her from New York and she must adjust to a new culture. It was a quick read. Danticat tells the story clearly and keeps the narrative flowing. I was a little disappointed, actually, that it seemed a more "shallow" book somehow than some of her others. The focus was on only one character's perspective and really focused mainly on one aspect of that character's experience, the way that gender suppression is carried on by the older women to the younger generation, mothers and grandmothers collaborating in the sexual traumatization of their own daughters. Of course, this is a big topic, worthy of a whole novel, but this novel just doesn't seem to have the richness of perspective that I enjoyed in "Krik Krak" and "Brother,I'm Dying."… (more)
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 Feleciak
Breathe, Eyes, Memory

2 Stars

Unfulfilling

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 to care for them. Too many situations that were scarcely reconciled. Too many unanswered questions that left me wondering the point of it all.… (more)
LibraryThing member read.to.live
You think this book is going to be an immigrant's story; but, it's not. In fact, immediately after the protagonist moves to the United States, the story jumps forward six years, passing over the child's assimilation -- schooling, becoming conversant in English, etc. There is not a single conversation between her and anyone her own age for the entire book. It's really a story about what it's like to be raised by a mentally ill mother suffering from PTSD; or perhaps about how mental illness runs in families and how as a child in that family you don't even realize enough to name it as mental illness, or enough to question whether you are suffering from it also. The story sticks so strictly to the protagonist's POV that even you, the reader, don't really know whether to call it mental illness --until right at the end. This is one child's story of growing up swimming in a sea of utter dysfunction. It's really sad. The saddest scene of all, to me, is Sophie's first night in her mother's apartment, when her mother greets her with a life-size doll she's been treating like a daughter.… (more)
LibraryThing member KamGeb
SPOILER ALERT - The book is about the life and familial relationships of Sophie, a woman from Haiti. It starts when she is a girl in Haiti being raised by her aunt. Then her mother who is in NY sends for her. She learns that she was conceived by a rape from when her mother was a teenager. Her mother has psychological issues due to her rape (and the prior physical tests her mother had done to her to ensure she was a virgin). Next it jumps to when Sophie is about to leave for college. She falls in love with an older African American man and ends up violently ripping her hymen so she can fail her mother's test and elope with the man. The book ends when she is a mother and ends up traveling back to Haiti to visit with her family and face her past.

The story itself was compelling and amazingly well written. The relationships between family members were complex and very believable. The one problem I had was with the end. I felt like something so meaningful was suppose to be happening in the last scene and it went over my head. I just didn't get it.

I was fascinated by the information about Haiti and the life in Haiti. I had never realized the turmoil in the country and it makes me want to learn more about its history.
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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 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 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 mdials
3 generations of Haitian women share a secret custom that haunts their lives....Great Book!

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