World of Words: ‘Breath, Eyes, Memory’ is a reckoning

April 10, 2024, 2:10 a.m.

“We carry the sky within us and it holds us captive.”

Growing up in Jamaica, where spiritual significance permeated every aspect of life, I often found myself marveling at the profound religious and interpersonal connections woven into our existence. Whether it was the belief that a sunshower marked a dispute between the Devil and his wife or the intricate layers of familial ties, there was an undeniable magic to home. 

Reading the evocative fiction novel “Breath, Eyes, Memory” by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, I was transported to the magic of my own home and the complex relationship we have with the term.

Danticat’s narrative transports readers into the heart of this magic, immersing them in the journey of 12-year-old Sophie as she grows up and navigates the complexities of her Haitian heritage and the challenges of life in New York. Sophie is a mature narrator, articulating the complexities of her life well enough to compel readers to invest themselves in her story. Yet, her innocence is unmistakable and refreshing. For example, she asks her aunt genuinely if people can actually die from chagrin. 

Raised by her aunt Atie in Haiti, Sophie’s transition to living with her mother, Martine, in New York unveils a profound exploration of identity, generational trauma and the search for belonging. Sophie’s dual identity is palpable as she grapples with the expectations of her heritage and the realities of her new environment. 

Danticat masterfully layers the tale with vivid imagery that is strong enough to carry the weight of the internal complexities she explores. Whether it is her description of Guinean people who “carry the sky on their heads” or 18-year-old Sophie’s subtle yet profound insistence that her future husband, Joseph, was “old like God is old to [her], ever present and full of wisdom,” readers are immersed into the story’s joys and heartbreaks. 

When we meet Sophie as a child, bereft of her biological mother who has migrated to New York, Atie is her only mother figure: the disciplinarian, the comforter, the provider. Like many children growing up in third-world countries, the role of the parent who leaves to find a better life must be assumed by relatives, in this case her aunt Atie. 

Notably, Sophie’s father is absent. It is later revealed that she was conceived by rape, a signal to the violence riddling Haitian society as well as the trauma that her mother had endured and continues to endure.

The weight of tradition, symbolized by the invasive practice of virginity testing, serves as a poignant reminder of the societal pressures that shape women’s lives in Haiti. Here, a woman’s purity is seen as essential to her honor and character. Yet, this patriarchal notion of purity is one that devastates the women. 

Atie becomes an alcoholic and Martine’s inner life is desolate. Sophie herself is unable to be intimate with her husband as a result of the trauma inflicted by the practice. As Sophie matures, she grapples with understanding her mother’s pain while also trying to forge her own path forward. The complexity of their relationship is beautifully rendered by Danticat, who captures the nuances of love, resentment and forgiveness.

In Danticat’s poignant narrative, we are reminded that healing is a journey that requires time, patience and courage. As Sophie takes her first steps toward reclaiming her agency and forging a new path, we are called to reflect on our own relationships with the past and the transformative potential of forgiveness and self-discovery. It is only through unraveling the layered struggles of our own experiences that we can uncover our identities and reclaim our homes as not merely static but dynamic places that continue to shape who we are in a multitude of ways. 

“Breath, Eyes, Memory” is more than a novel; it’s a reckoning, even if sometimes a silent one. It’s an unforgettable experience that will inspire you to confront the trauma that has morphed the world we inhabit. For in the end, as Danticat beautifully articulates, “Healing takes time and patience, but it is worth every moment.”

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