“‘Us Caco women,’ she said, ‘when we’re happy, we’re very happy, but when we’re sad, the sadness is deep.’”
Breath, Eyes, Memory is deceptively heavy. It’s tragic without being dramatic, told in such a simple and easy fashion, without any sort of desperation to convey its heartbreak. The sadness seeps out in a way that feels genuine.
The story begins with Sophie Caco, living happily in Haiti with her Tante Atie, when her mother summons her suddenly to New York. The plan was always to be reunited, but Sophie doesn’t appreciate being uprooted. The fact that Sophie is the child of rape, fathered by an unknown man who assaulted her teenage mother, adds to the discomfort. It inevitably creates a complicated relationship, as Sophie is both a reminder of the pain and a comfort during Martine’s frequent nightmares.
Meanwhile Sophie is tormented by Martine’s “testing,” a Haitian tradition where a mother tests her daughter’s virginity by checking the hymen with her finger. According to Sophie’s grandmother, “From the time a girl begins to menstruate to the time you turn her over to her husband, the mother is responsible for her purity.” Sophie’s testing begins after her mother catches her coming home late, having spent the evening with their neighbour, Joseph the musician.
It’s one of those difficult situations where you can see Martine is doing what she truly believes is best for her daughter, but it’s not. In an effort to escape the nightly ritual, Sophie uses a pestle to violently break her hymen, causing physical damage and leading her mother to kick her out. So she elopes with Joseph.
Two years later she returns to Haiti, where the bulk of the story takes place. Sophie brings along her infant daughter, attempting to escape the anxieties and confusions that plague her in married life, particularly her problems with sex. While it’s clear there’s love between her and Joseph, the testing and the pestle incident leave her emotionally scarred.
On Sophie’s return she finds Tante Atie is a heavy drinker, and as Grandmother Ifé says, “Sadness is now her way of life.” But Atie has also learned to read and write, and remains a loyal maternal figure to Sophie and now baby Brigitte. Sophie’s time in Haiti showcases a starkly different lifestyle to the US and for a while you kind of feel like the story is stopped in time; the world keeps moving but Sophie can stay suspended in this new reality forever.
Eventually, however, her mother shows up to reconcile and convinces Sophie to return to the States and to her husband, but in some ways things are worse than when she left. While Sophie joins a sexual trauma support group and sees a therapist, Martine struggles with an unexpected pregnancy that aggravates her already unceasing nightmares. In the end, Martine kills herself sending the family back to Haiti for the funeral.
So it’s not a totally uplifting read. But it’s not totally despairing either. It’s full of fear and courage and resilience and loyalty and pain and isolation and love, and in her suffering Sophie finds a sense of freedom without fully letting go of her past.