I have high expectations of any book that is a part of Oprah’s Book Club because I can be easily swayed like that. Edwidge Danticat’s “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” the writer’s first novel published in 1994, is one of those books. While it was a quick read, it certainly did not lack in content.
The main character, Sophie, is brought up by her Tante Atie in Haiti while her mother works in New York City to support her family back on the island. Sophie’s life changes drastically when she is reunited with her mother, Martine. Not only does she move to a completely different country with a woman she barely knows, but she also enters into a world where her mother suffers from terribly vivid nightmare of her rape, which is how Sophie came into the world.
In New York City, Martine treats Sophie the same way her mother treated her, but with a little more intensity. Sophie must not interact with boys, but instead she must achieve great academic success in order to become a doctor. Martine, however, and rightly so, is in a semi-serious relationship with a man. Sophie, too, eventually falls in love with a much older man against her mother’s warnings. Therefore, Sophie leaves her mother to live with him. This happens after Sophie fails the “testing,” which is Martine’s and (from what I understood) many other women’s way of making sure that their daughter’s have remained “pure.” It is important to note that Sophie broke her hymen on her own before having sex and, although it created some trauma for her, it was a symbolic act considering the way she was conceived.
The strength of this book comes from the ideologies that surround this “testing” and the challenging of those ideologies. The test is a generational rite of testing a girl’s virginity. However, Sophie, out of all the women in her family, is the only one to truly see it as what it is—abuse. I think this is where Danticat uses the American ideologies Sophie has acquired to challenge the problematic Haitian ideologies. I don’t mean to say that the American way is better than the Haitian way; I just want to point out the sort of borderland that Sophie is in and how Danticat offers a way to begin to dissect it.
When Sophie briefly runs away from her husband to Haiti with her baby daughter, she beings to see the differences in her life compared to the women she left there and even her mother. She sees her Tante Atie’s world falling apart when she loses her best friend, years after having lost the love of her life to another woman. Tante Atie’s life is so different from Sophie’s because she has remained in Haiti to care for the family matriarch, Grandmè Ifé, without a husband or family of her own. Even though Grandmè Ifé is nearing her final days, Tante Atie feels as though she has no other purpose in life. Tante Atie’s life, I think, serves as a way to contrast Sophie’s life thus far.
It is also on this journey to Haiti where Sophie and Martine reunite. From this reunion, we learn that Martine is pregnant. The pregnancy brings back all of the trauma from the rape and intensifies the feelings she already has about it. Sophie’s own issues with her husband and their sex life are also something Sophie considers when she thinks about her mother having to live with the torment and the memories everyday. In a way, Sophie’s own troubles, along with those of the other women in her family, are represented by Martine’s inescapable, haunting past.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it certainly speaks to the role of society and how it often shames women and their sexual lives. The rites and traditional views that arise from this shame have affected these women’s lives in profound ways. I admire how Danticat made the women in this novel complex and not just victims. Her writing was simplistic but beautiful, giving just enough details to keep us on track with Sophie’s understanding of the past and present as they unfolded.
I’m giving this one four out of five!