Challenges / Historical Fiction / New to Me Author

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

breathI want to say I loved this book, but it was a little difficult for me to relate to, even though it’s well written and has important themes.  Still, maybe this isn’t the kind of book you love.  It’s more a book you read to increase your knowledge of the world.

Sophie is a young girl growing up with her aunt in Haiti. When she’s twelve she goes to live with her mother in New York. Sophie doesn’t know her mother but they come to build a strong relationship. That is, until Sophie becomes old enough to become interested in an older man who lives next door.

In some ways, this is a story of living in two very different worlds, the United States and Haiti. Haiti is a dangerous place; the people are terrorized by soldiers called the Macoutes who commit random violence. Sophie witnesses a beating in the market and learns that her birth was the result of her mother’s rape by a faceless soldier. But Haiti is also Sophie’s home.

Author Danticat, who was only 24 when she wrote this book, wants to convey both the beauty and the trauma of life in Haiti during this time. The book is semi-autobiographical in that she was also raised by an aunt in Haiti and went to the U.S. with her parents at the age of 12.

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.

I particularly liked the earlier part of the book where Sophie is a child. At the age of twelve, she has to leave everything she knows to get on a plane and build a relationship with the mother she’s never known. Then she experiences her first love, but also faces her mother’s crushing fear of men and sexuality.

Still, I found it difficult to feel I really understood Sophie, in part because of Danticat’s spare, unemotional prose and her limited description of events. We also have a big leap in time from age twelve to eighteen. It’s a little hard to get into Sophia’s head – for example, at one point she takes her infant child to Haiti without ever telling her husband where she’s gone and without having any kind of plan for what to do next.

It’s when Sophie returns from Haiti that I began to understand more about Sophie’s relationship with her mother, and her fears for her future relationship with her daughter.

Some nights I woke up in a cold sweat wondering if my mother’s anxiety was somehow hereditary or if it was something I had “caught” from living with her. Her nightmares had somehow become my own, so much so that I would wake up some mornings wondering we hadn’t both spent the night dreaming about the same thing: a man with no face, pounding a life into a helpless young girl.

I was sympathetic but somehow not as moved by this book as I wanted to be. This is a fairly short book and it felt like a lot of serious issues get thrown at you but not explored as thoroughly as I would have liked. I wanted to know more about Haiti and Danticat’s experiences, and there is a lot in this book I probably didn’t understand. This book would be great to study and discuss. But as a solitary reader, I found myself wanting more.

2 thoughts on “Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

  1. Pingback: 2015 Reading Challenge Wrap-Up | The Book Stop

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