Breath, Eyes, Memory
Ms. Hen read this novel because she had read another book by this author, and she enjoyed it. She found this at Commonwealth Books in Boston, a little bookstore tucked away in an alley, which sells rare books and prints, and sometimes there’s a cat lurking around the place, but she wasn’t there the day Ms. Hen went in.
When Ms. Hen started to read this, she thought it was a very typical novel about a black woman coming of age. But as she read, it became a little different. The young girl, Sophie, lives with her aunt in Haiti. Her mother moved to New York to make money, but did not take her daughter because she didn’t know how life would be in the United States. Her mother sends for the daughter, and Sophie goes on a plane to New York.
Ms. Hen has read many novels about black women, which are somewhat similar. Everything by Toni Morrison, and others like her. A lot of the time, the woman gets raped or molested, or something to that effect. This book was like that, but not quite the same. Sophie never becomes close to her mother, and the results are that they have a fight and do not talk to each other for years.
This isn’t just a novel about a woman’s sexuality. It is about coming home, and finding family, mothers and daughters, being a fatherless child, and women. There is a lack of male characters in BREATH, EYES, MEMORY; the men are in the background. They are shadow characters.
Even though this novel was disturbing to Ms. Hen, she found it beautiful to read. The words danced on the page, music sang from the sounds of the words, and even though it upset Ms. Hen, she found it a pleasure to read. She decided that this is a book that could not be read straight through, she had to take pauses to stop and reflect, to think about what happened, and weigh the characters’ lives and situations.
There are several chickens in this novel, since portions of it takes place in a rural area in Haiti. Sophie and her mother are on the plane coming back, “She picked at the white chicken they gave us for lunch, while I gave Brigitte a bottle.” Sophie tells her mother she developed bulimia after she had her baby. Her mother doesn’t understand why she would do that when thing are so plentiful in the United States.
Ms. Hen thinks this is a sad novel, but a powerful one. She understands why this is important, but it makes her uncomfortable. She likes being made uncomfortable, but not too much. Sometimes she just wants to read a book and not be disturbed by the problems of the world. She prefers to find joy in reading, not by reading about people who are happy, but about people who can laugh at themselves. There is nothing to laugh at in this book. It’s about the sadness of the world, which can be heavy, but it exists, and we should acknowledge it.