Note: Edwidge Danticat has the best name in all the land. I shall say it as often as possible in this review because it is a superb name. Edwidge Danticat.
Breath, Eyes, Memory is a goes-off-to-live-with book. (Written by Edwidge Danticat.) I love a goes-off-to-live-with book, although now that I am a grown-up, such books are increasingly likely to involve severe trauma at the original home or the place where the character goes off to live. Sophie (the protagonist invented by Edwidge Danticat) has spent all of her twelve years with her Tante Atie, but suddenly she must leave her home in Haiti and go off to live with her mother in New York. It’s a book about women and families and the heritage of trauma: “Nightmares,” she [but really it is Edwidge Danticat] writes, “are passed on through generations like heirlooms.”
Edwidge Danticat uses a structure that did not altogether thrill me, organizing her book in sections that jump ahead several years, so that with each section change I was distracted from the story and trying to piece together clues to figure out how much time had passed. It’s a shame that this happened, as Sophie is an increasingly unreliable narrator, and I’d have preferred to spend that time and mental energy piecing together what was really going on in her life.
That said, this book deals with complex issues really well and in beautiful, spare prose. Edwidge Danticat portrays Haiti and its traditional culture in an incredibly respectful way, while not giving the culture a pass for the trauma it inflicts upon its people. Sophie’s mother tells Sophie how her own mother used to “test” her to see if she was still a virgin; until, that is, she was raped by a stranger and produced Sophie. Both experiences have scarred Sophie’s mother, yet she in turn tests Sophie each night after she discovers that Sophie has a boyfriend. It’s a very intriguing look at the role women play in creating a sexually repressive culture. Hence I am counting it for the Women Unbound Challenge.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I kept thinking it might have been better as short stories. Each section was so separate from the others that the book didn’t feel cohesive, particularly as there seemed no good reason to skip ahead those years, except that Edwidge Danticat had nothing else to say about Sophie’s present age and situation. I’d like to read some of Edwidge Danticat’s short stories, because that Edwidge Danticat, I bet she could write really good short stories. Edwidge Danticat. I LOVE THAT NAME SO MUCH. It is better really than Francisco X. Stork, the last name I professed to adore.
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