Review: Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat

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.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot (thanks for the recommendation!)
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Joystory
Musings

Tell me if I missed yours!

  • I just found this recently. My husband reviewed a different Danticat book (I think it was AFter the Dance) a few years ago and then I picked this one up on Ana’s recommendation. I’m really looking forward to it, but thanks for the forewarning on the time structure!

    • You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy it when you get around to it. Did your husband like After the Dance? I am trying to decide on what Danticat book to read next.

  • This kind of structure doesn’t often work for me, but in this case it did. And I thought that the analysis of how women perpetuate sexual oppression was very interesting too. The sections about the tests were SO difficult for me to read. When it comes to intimacy and sexuality, even verbal intrusion is VERY hard for me to handle. The mere thought of going through something like that horrifies me : And yet, as Danticat so clearly shows, those women loved one another and meant to protect the younger generation. It’s so complicated.

    • It’s definitely something that I haven’t seen explored very often – which is funny, because it’s so important to the structures of sexism and oppression, that generation after generation of women are willing participants in it. Have you read anything else by her? Is this something she often explores?

      • This was my first time reading her, but I wonder if she does. I’ve heard wonders about Kirk? Krak! (which IS a collection of short stories), so I think I’ll try that next.

      • Yes, I’ve heard very good things about that one. I’m just not the biggest fan of short stories, as a rule. Or at least I have only read a few by which I was wildly impressed, and short story collections rarely thrill me.

  • The only Danticat I’ve read I didn’t really read. I listened to Brother, I’m Dying on audio. If you love her name now, you’ll really love it after listening to that. The narrator is suberb, and the accents will make you swoon. I promise.

    • I thought you were going to say she read it herself and was a good reader-out-loud, which would have made me all swoony. I love it when authors have good voices for reading out loud, like Neil Gaiman; in fact, I even softened a bit towards Toni Morrison after hearing her read an excerpt from one of her books. But, yes! I will try to seek out this audiobook.

    • trapunto

      Nice to know about this audio! I love it when they do the right accents. Kaye Gibbons makes me swoon. I wasn’t a fan of her writing until I heard her read it herself, then all the cadences made sense, and it was practically poetry.

      • Really? I too am not a fan of Kaye Gibbons. What cadences didn’t make sense before? I don’t remember cadences not making sense…though it has been nearly a decade (yeesh, I feel old) since I read Ellen Foster.

  • “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.”

    Well Jenny,
    Haiti is not my favorite place in the world. I traveled so much in the impoverished sectors of the Far East, like India and Thailand, that imagining the culture there is hard.

    Albeit I speak French, I never had any contact with a soul there.

    Now that I am retired I am very picky about what I read. That means if the story doesn’t hold my interest in the first 50-60 pages, it’s “adios amigos” for me.

    I just joined WordPress this past weekend. So, I am still feeling my way. I write about 75% spiritually related topics and the rest are a mixture of “hot topics” usually about the Catholic Church. I am a little bummed out on the Pope issue. All we can do is pray!

    At WorksForChristBlog I have 20-30 Book Reviews from last year. It’s a very eclectic mix.

    Ciao. for now!
    CharlieC.

  • Katy

    I like your tags. That Doctor Who episode was riddled with holes, wasn’t it? And it started out so promising, too!

    • I know! I was disappointed! But I made up an alternate opening for it, and after that it was easy to fix by just adding a few lines here and there. I know the episode is still flawed, but in my head it’s completely fixed! 😛

  • I was enjoying the name, Edwidge Dandicat, and your repeated use of it, and then you said ‘she’ and my mind was blown even more. That’s a girl’s name? crazy.
    Almost as embarrassing to me as the time I voted at The Book Mine Set’s Wednesday Compare for Gabrielle Roy as ‘the other guy’, and then found out he was a she. The sad part was there was a picture to help me figure this out.

    • It took me a long-ass time to realize that George Eliot was a woman. Which is particularly embarrassing because I remember everyone saying “she” to refer to George Eliot, and I just thought they were all misspeaking. I thought that they were getting her (him, I thought) mixed up with George Sand. And now, alas, I get George Eliot and George Sand mixed up.

  • This is a title I haven’t heard of before, and I agree that that name is very memorable and distinctive. I would never have guess from the name that the author was a women either.

    • I’m trying to remember when I first heard of her. I know I read a column by her shortly after the earthquake in Haiti, and I think that’s why I bought Breath, Eyes, Memory in the first place. But there was a picture of her with the column, so I always knew she was a girl.

  • Mumsy

    Do you think she pronounces it “Dainty-cat?” Because that would be entrancing.

    • No, no, it’s better if it’s “dan” like “dandelion”. Because then, you know. Assonance. Dan-ti-cat.

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  • I used to love ED. Haven’t read her in years though. I worked with a girl who was from Haiti, and she introduced me to Ms. Danticat. [And you’re right. It’s a fabulous name.] Thanks for reminding me of her, and in a roundabout way, another book I loved during that same time period– “The Mermaids Singing” by Lisa Carey. Have you read that one?

    • I’ve never even heard of that one, but the Amazon synopsis makes it sound lovely! And any title that evokes John Donne is good in my book. 🙂

  • Edwidge Danticat is brand new to me, so I initially assumed she was a man. You know, on account of the Ed part. I was surprised to learn that she is, in fact, female. She does have an awesome name, either way.

    • I always thought of her as female because of her girly last name. I guess that wouldn’t have been fair if she had, in fact, been a dude.

  • Eva

    I’m so happy I own this one! I LOVED The Farming of the Bones, and I just finished After the Dance, which was also awesome.

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  • I first heard of Edwidge via a cousin of mine. I’m glad to add her works to my list of great reads. As a writer, I don’t get to read as much as I used to so I try to be very selective. Ms. Danticat is very talented indeed.