Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Breath, Eyes, Memory" by Edwidge Danticat

A Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge pick.

As with any Oprah's Book Club pick, I try my best to temper my expectations. Over the years I've read many and liked very few, finding most of them just plain bizarre. But the few books from the book club that knock it out of the park make the many others worth wading through- fortunately, this was a great one.

Although this book starts out relatively interesting, it isn't until halfway through that I knew I was hooked. The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were the ones set in Haiti: the U.S. parts of the book (few that there were) weren't nearly as absorbing.

The Plot: (As Seen on Goodreads)
'At an astonishingly young age, Edwidge Danticat has become one of our most celebrated new novelists, a writer who evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti--and the enduring strength of Haiti's women--with a vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people's suffering and courage.
'At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti--to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence, in a novel that bears witness to the traditions, suffering, and wisdom of an entire people.'

What really draws you in with this book is the culture of Haiti itself- it wasn't like I expected it to be. Mothers are expected to protect their daughter's innocence- if their daughter isn't a virgin any longer, they are shamed or even thrown out of the house altogether. This "virginity cult" (as the author words it) makes you more than a bit queasy as the book progresses: although it is the fashion in American religious households to have virgin daughters, I've never heard of it escalating quite as far as it does in the book (I won't give examples here, as it's a little spoilerish).

This book focuses on female relationships: particularly mother/daughter ones. Sophie and her mother suffer multiple ups and downs as they grow older, and Sophie grows tired of her mother's interference. I would have liked to see more of Sophie's perspective outside of her home and family life, as it seems in this book she only exists when she gets home from school. But overall, the characters were well-drawn and I came to admire Sophie's diligence to be a person separate from her mother.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a book I wished had started as well as it ended. The beginning was interesting enough, but just not as compelling as those final few pages I snarfed down, then reread to savor. Overall, this is a great novel I recommend to those interested in the complexities of women's relationships and the resilience of the people of Haiti.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars for a great read that starts out a bit slower than it finishes.

Content: Ages 16+ for themes of sexual assault, invasion of privacy, and violence.

Page Count: 234 pages in my battered paperback edition

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