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.
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)
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!
"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)
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
I'll remember this book for a long time, it's that magical!! Highly recommended.