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Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994)

by Edwidge Danticat

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2,433584,238 (3.73)188
Twelve-year-old Sophie Caco is removed from her impoverished village and sent to live in New York with her mother, a woman she barely knows. There she learns about a terrible truth that shadows her family.
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Showing 1-5 of 56 (next | show all)
I finished this book last night and let myself think on it over night before posting a review. First things first, I found this book to be brilliant.

I honestly don't know that much about Haiti as a country or a culture. I of course know about the earthquake that struck the country in 2010. It was all over the U.S. press and friends of mine had fundraisers and donations drives. I also had friends in the State department who chose to volunteer to go to Haiti to do what they could. One of my friends still won't talk about being down there in the aftermath and said that he would never forget what a luxury it is to have hot water. It's sad to see that after the initial few months of assistance by our country and others, Haiti is still stuck trying to rebuild (see
http://time.com/3662225/haiti-earthquake-five-year-after/).

Reading this book let me glimpse upon the inner workings of a family that had only women left to usher in the new generation. The character of Sophie will break your heart again and again throughout this book.

Told in the first person in four parts, we follow Sophie from the age of 12 until she I think based on the timeline of the story is 20 possibly 21.

When the book begins Sophie is a 12 year old girl happily living with her Aunt (Tante Atie) in Haiti. She knows that her real mother lives in New York, but sees New York and her mother as a far off place she will never see again. That all changes when her mother sends for her. Part two picks up when Sophie is 18 about to go to college, part three shows her with her newborn daughter in Haiti, and part four shows her back in the United States.

The flow of the book was perfect after the first couple of chapters. I thought that the book really started to get going after Sophie's mother sends for her. The description of Haiti, the smells, colors, and food made me feel as I was right there. I initially called this a memoir since the way that Edwidge Danticat writes it feels as if she is relaying something truly personal that may have happened to her and is using Sophie as her stand-in so to speak.

Reading about the inner workings of those that live in Haiti and worked the sugar cane crops was fascinating. Also reading about how the relationship between mothers and daughters was more important than a relationship that a woman had with any man that came after.

Some of the plot points were shocking (warning there is discussion of rape and self-harm in this book) and often saddening. Reading how Sophie felt apart and different from others in the U.S., how many Haitians used bleach to lighten their skin, frank discussions about rape, murder, and death made this whole book an engrossing read.

I think of this book as the Haitian version of the Joy Luck Club since we ultimately do focus on Sophie and the relationship that she has with her two mothers (her aunt and her real mother).

I have a favorite passage in the book which I loved, but I can't share it because it would spoil the ending to those of you that may want to read it. I loved everything about the words that were written, the poetry of them, the sense of loss and longing that I got as I read. This is definitely going to be another go to the bookstore and buy permanently book.

I did go to her author page on Amazon,(see Edwidge Danticat's Amazon Author Page) and was floored to see how many books she has written. I am definitely going to have to go and read some of her other works since I loved this book so much. ( )
  ObsidianBlue | Jul 1, 2020 |
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 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. ( )
  TheAmpersand | Jun 19, 2020 |
A sensitive look into some Haitian lives. ( )
  cougargirl1967 | Mar 29, 2020 |
Started off okish but got stilted. Not as good as Danticat's later work. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
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 story carrying some hope in "breath, eyes and their memory." ( )
  steller0707 | Aug 25, 2019 |
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To the brave women of Haiti,
grandmothers, mothers, aunts,
sisters, cousins, daughters, and friends,
on this shore and other shores.
We have stumbled but we will not fall.
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A flattened and drying daffodil was dangling off the little card that I had made my aunt Atie for Mother's Day.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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