Author: Edwidge Danticat
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 1994 (read Mar. 2022)
Breath, Eyes, Memory has been on my TBR for a very long time. It’s a modern classic and I finally picked up a copy last year in a second hand bookstore. I put it on my backlist books for this year to finally try and find the motivation to read it.
It blew me away. It was not at all the book I was expecting and I wish I had seen some trigger warnings for it because it is a heavy, emotional book. So TW for rape, sexual assault, eating disorders, and suicide. It was a hard book to read, but I can’t stop thinking about it since I read it and I know it’s a book that will stay with me.
Breath, Eyes, Memory tells the story of Sophie Caco, a young Haitian girl who has grown up with her Aunt while her mother tries to make a living in America. Her mother sends for her at the age of 12 and Sophie leaves behind everything she knows to move to America. I thought it was going to be a straightforward coming-of-age story about immigration, but it was so much more than that. At its core, this is a book about generational trauma.
Sophie grows up in America, but struggles to find herself there. The women in her family have been taught strict ideals about sexual purity that are enforced down from generation to generation. When Sophie has a falling out with her mother, she returns to her homeland to see her Aunt and Grandmother and try to make sense of the trauma that has been passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. At the same time, her mother is grappling with her own childhood trauma and the two women struggle to be there for one another, despite needing each other.
This is Danticat’s debut and she has a simple writing style, but I still found it to be extremely compelling. She doesn’t get caught up in side stories and every idea has its own place and meaning. It’s quite an emotional punch for how short the book is. It’s a very sad story and I ached for each one of the characters; questioning, but understanding how the cycle of violence always repeats itself. I’ve never heard of the kind of purity test that has been inflicted on the women of Haiti and I think it will forever haunt me, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for the girls who experience it. I don’t think I could re-read this book because it is quite upsetting, but I do feel better for having read it.