Feb 17, 2010

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Dandicat

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Dandicat

Breath, Eyes, Memory opens when twelve-year-old Sophie finds out that she soon has to leave her native Haiti and the aunt who has raised her since she was a baby to go live in New York with a mother she barely remembers. After some time with her mother, Sophie uncovers a secret that has been kept for years, after which she has to find a way to come to terms with the consequences this silence has had on her own life, as well as on the lives of those she loves.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is divided into several parts, with years-long gaps between each. At first, the time jumps distanced me a little bit from the story, but in the end, I felt that the structure worked very well. It allowed the story to say what it was meant to say more clearly than a more traditional narrative would. More than a story about a young girl adapting to a new country, this is a story about the lingering effects of certain events. Of course, in many ways it also is an immigrant story: Sophie’s upbringing in New York distances her enough from her homeland and family that she can see them from a new angle. But this doesn’t mean she stands apart from them, of course.

I’m being a little bit vague, I know, and the reason why is that Breath, Eyes, Memory really surprised me. I didn’t really know much about the plot, and it turned out to deal with themes I feel quite strongly about. This is possibly a spoiler, so feel free to skip ahead. But spoiler-y or not I wanted to tell you that the book deals with sexual abuse—not so you’ll avoid it, but because I know this is a delicate topic for many people, and that countless readers have good reasons to want to know beforehand if they’re going to pick up a book about it.

I don’t want to say how exactly it plays into the story (not that it’s exactly hard to guess after the first few chapters), but I needed to tell you this so I can talk about the book more openly. Sophie’s culture (as many other cultures) is one in which sexual “purity” defines of a woman’s worth. It’s also one (again, as many many others) in which female virginity is highly valued. So a woman who has been abused, even if not blamed in the traditional why-were-you-out-late-why-did-you-wear-that-short-dress sort of way, is still considered “damaged goods”, and is still made to feel that she has brought shame on herself and her family. Sadly (but understandably), these beliefs are so ingrained that even women who have had their lives ruined by this mindset will perpetuate it when their turns comes to raise the following generation.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a nuanced and forgiving book, in the sense that it doesn’t present Sophie and the women in her family as enemies, as victims or villains, but as women trying to navigate the same system of oppression. But it’s also an immensely sad and upsetting book. More than anything, it shows the consequences of silence, of shame, of not being allowed to talk about what desperately needs to be talked about. What remains unspoken poisons these women’s relationships with themselves, with their bodies, and with one another.

My heart broke for Sophie, for her mother, for her aunt, for her grandmother before them. All of them were made to feel, overtly or in more subtle ways, that their sexuality was dirty; that they weren’t allowed to inhabit their own bodies. They were punished for being sexual beings, and yet expected to be sexual beings at the same time. This is a story that repeats itself time and again, all over the world, to this day and beyond.

One final note: I mooched Breath, Eyes, Memory a few months ago because I loved Dandicat’s introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I decided to read it now because recent events made me want to deepen my understanding of Haiti. The more you know, after all, the more you care. It’s not that the news of the tragedy weren’t enough to make me care, but when I read about a place, I feel that I have developed a personal connection with it—it’s almost like having been there myself, or having a friend who comes from that place. You can click the link below to donate to relief efforts in Haiti.

Stand With Haiti

Other opinions:
Musings of a Bookish Kitten
Joy Story
Reading with Tequila

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. Hey Ana -

    Thanks for the review. I have this book on my shelf and every time I finish a novel and go to my shelves to seek out a new read, I overlook this one. Now you've made it stand out.

    (I love the cover, btw. I have no idea who the author is).

  2. Lovely review. It has been the case for so long for most women that, as you said so well "They were punished for being sexual beings, and yet expected to be sexual beings at the same time." Although this is not a happy topic, there is a very amusing and satirical poem on this subject written by a woman in the 17th Century that Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos just published on his blog at http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.com/2010/02/sor-juana-for-beginners-i-satira.html .

  3. This sounds really good. I've been looking for which Danticat book to read since Jason read one and reviewed it last year (or the year before).

  4. Excellent review. I do appreciate the head's up on some of the topics. Some readers simply won't want to read a book of this nature, so it is better they are forewarned.

  5. This was my first Danticat book. I enjoyed it but she really comes into her own in The Farming of Bones.

    Highly recommend Krik!Krak!, a collection of short stories, too.

    We are featuring another Haitian-American writer at Color Online. Different genre, YA. Check out Ms. Debbie Rigaud.

  6. Great review. I read Breath, Eyes, Memory last month and was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. It's not anything like what I usually read. Here's my review if your interested: Link

  7. I only skimmed your review, although I absolutely love your writing, since I hope to read this soon. I will be back!

  8. I tried to get this book of Paperback swap for like ever and the senders kept falling through, so I gave up. When I'm done culling my TBR pile, I might give it another chance!

  9. Thank you for your great review, Ana. You make me want to reread this one.

    Thank you for linking my review. I went back and read it. Boy, I've come a long way since 2006! LOL

  10. That sounds like a powerful book and the perfect read for right now. Thanks for your great review.

  11. I have a copy of this, picked up from a library book sale, and I almost started reading it because it's about Haiti, but then had far too many pressing books to read, hate how that happens.

    Anyways,it really does bother me when one's virginity is the measure of their worth, as typically it's only female virginity that matters and not male virginity.

    Also, completely agree on how when you read a book set in a country that isn't your own, you feel like you meet a friend from the new country.

  12. I have a book about Haiti and I wondered if I would be acting in bad taste by reading it at the moment, but you have made me feel a lot better about actually reading it. I can totally understand your need for connection with the place. I will definitely read it now and not feel bad about doing so.

  13. This one has been on my radar screen for a while...sounds like a great read!

  14. This book hits really close to home. As a teacher/librarian I have students from Haiti. They are having a rough time right now coping.
    Thanks for posting this great review. Sounds like a necessary read.

  15. If I had any books that had something to do with Haiti, I'd probably read it now too. Sad that it sometimes takes such devastation to make us want to know more about something.

  16. Excellent review! I've been meaning to read Danticat for quite some time.

  17. **What remains unspoken poisons these women’s relationships with themselves, with their bodies, and with one another.** - very true!

    **This is a story that repeats itself time and again, all over the world, to this day and beyond.**
    So true!

    I am sure to read this one, if I get it here surely. Awesome review and some great thoughts.

  18. Great review. Makes me want to read it!

  19. I love when you say "when I read about a place, I feel that I have developed a personal connection with it—it’s almost like having been there myself, or having a friend who comes from that place. " I think that is a perfect reason to read a book like this.

    Thanks for this review.

  20. This was a tough book, but I was happy I had read it. Did you ever read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? Another touching story as well.

  21. I remember Oprah (yes, I used to watch her) talking about this one. I think it was one of her book club books. I put it on my list to read and sadly, never got around to it. Thank you for such an honest review and with all that has happened in Haiti lately this book seems like a timely one to read.

  22. Wisteria,

    How Old are your students?

    You might want to check out Every Time A Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams-Garcia.

    It is sad and inspiring. It also involves rape so now might not be a good time. The rape is not graphic and it is not the focus of the book. The aftermath is.

  23. Christina, you're most welcome! I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    Jill, thank you so much for the link!

    Amanda: I hear some of her others are even better, but this was a good place to start.

    Sandy: I know it can be triggering for some people (and sadly, SO many more have experience abuse than we realise), so I wanted to be careful.

    Susan, will do! Thank you for the recommendations.

    Jennifer, thank you for your link! So sorry I forgot.

    Stephanie: I can't wait to hear what you think.

    Amy: Booo - it makes me so sad when that happens with Bookmooch :( Especially when it's books I really want.

    Wendy: lol, I *always* feel that way when reading my old reviews :P They seriously make me cringe. But on the bright side, it's good that our writing styles evolved with time, right? :P

    Kathy, you're welcome! It was powerful.

    April: Yes, it's always female virginity :\ Have you read Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank? It's a whole book about this topic - very enlightening, interesting and readable!

  24. Vivienne: I think it's only natural to want to know more, and I think anything that makes us care more can only be good!

    Staci, it really is!

    Wisteria: I can't even begin to imagine how your students must be feeling :(

    J.T. Oldfield: I know...but it's human nature, I guess. Better late than never, at least!

    JoAnn: I need to read more of her work. She's excellent!

    Veens: Thank you! I look forward to hearing what you think when you do :)

    Sadako: I hope you'll - well, 'enjoy it' is probably not the right expression, but you know what I mean.

    Rebecca: It's funny how that happens - but then again, it's part of the power of stories, I think.

    Diane: I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list! I want to read all of Morrison's books.

    Kathleen: Yes, I think she picked this for her book club. I know some people resent those sticker covers, but on the plus side it's great that she brought this book to the attention of so many.

  25. I just happened to find this yesterday for a few cents from our library booksale shelf, and here is your review! I'll probably read it sooner rather than later because of your review.

  26. I've been wanting to read this one, though I can't remember how it got on my TBR list. Thanks for the excellent review!

  27. I picked up this book at a going out of business book store sale along with some others, and was not sure what it was about. I am really intrigued after reading your review and will be searching it out on my shelves soon. It sounds like a heartbreaking read with a lot of emotion and I will be really interested in getting into the story myself! Thanks for spotlighting this one!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.