Breath, Eyes, Memory
The novel's protagonist and narrator, Sophie is a liminal creature whose search for resolution drives the narrative. The book opens as she leaves Haiti for New York on the threshold of adolescence, suspended between childhood and womanhood and between her aunt's and mother's worlds. As the novel progresses, her simultaneous roles as daughter and mother, girl and woman, child of rape and savior from nightmares, Creole- and English-speaker, immigrant and exile, daughter and wife play out as infinite variations of a difficult cohabitation. By the time of her testing, this continual disjunction has given way to a conscious power of doubling, as Sophie distracts her mind from the experiences of her body. It is not until her return to Dame Marie in the novel's third section that Sophie will begin to undo this work of splitting and simultaneity, to fit the pieces of herself into a coherent whole.
Sophie's narrative style suggests the unfinished nature of her project. She describes herself objectively, often with the distance of a third person. She narrates simply, presenting events without explanations, refusing to speak from a vantage point of perfect knowledge. Sophie has access to many vocabularies of introspection, from psychoanalysis to folk wisdom, and her wide use of them reflects an attempt to use all she knows against life's complexity. She leaves narrative gaps of months or years, imposing structure on her story through calculated omission. At the same time, her objectivity acknowledges the difficulty of faithfully narrating or communicating pain. Just as Sophie stands outside her mother's nightmares even as she lives their pain, so the reader is aware both of the humanity and of the privacy of Sophie's struggle. Her narrative is a testament, a record, and a script, but it is not a confessional. Sophie appears alternately as hopeful, desperate, kind, loving, hurt, lost, self-conscious, confident, confused, angry, and free. Yet she never reveals herself entirely, choosing at times to retreat behind an objective, opaque curtain of narrative. Just as parables do not explain, but instead embody the truth, Sophie's story stands alone as a witness to her womanhood and to her reconciliation.
Though Breath, Eyes, Memory is ostensibly Sophie's story, it is Martine's life which bookends the narrative. The novel begins as Sophie is sent to Martine in New York, and ends with Martine's suicide. Sophie's life is haunted by Martine's absence, and implicitly shaped by Martine's story. Sophie's ghosts, phobias, insecurities and demons are Martine's own, and Sophie's growth into womanhood is ultimately an attempt to make sense of her mother's tragedies.
As the novel progresses, Martine emerges not simply as Sophie's double but as the force, and lack, against which everything else in the novel is defined. Her character, in its palpable absence, holds the Caco family together. Martine is the reason Atie moves to Croix-des-Rosets to care for Sophie, and the reason Atie moves home to care for their mother in Dame Marie. She is the absent source of 'New York money,' sending home her dearly earned wages to pay for her daughter's needs and her mother's funeral preparations. She is the Caco family's tragedy and deepest secret, and it is her horrific rape which the novel conceals and then gradually resolves. She is the reason for Sophie's birth and move to New York, Sophie's elopement, and Sophie's return to Joseph; in suicide, she is the reason for Sophie's ultimate liberation. She is the foil, the double, the marassa of her sister and daughter. Yet Martine's growing importance to the story is paralleled by her increasing absence. She is the mother whom Sophie does not know, the daughter who cannot return home, the mother to whom Sophie is not speaking, the lover whom Marc cannot understand. Even when she lives with Sophie, Martine's constant work means that she is rarely home. When she is home, as on the night of Sophie's first testing, her presence comes as a surprise. Martine appears sporadically, often via cassette and telephone, interfering directly in the narrative only when she cannot do otherwise.
Martine's action-at-a-distance and her ambiguous presence is underscored by her deep association with images, visions, fantasies and voices. Sophie first mentions Martine as the mother whom she knows only in photographs and dreams. Martine is one of the few people whom the novel faithfully describes, as Sophie's gaze lingers on her mother's gaunt face, her prosthetic bra, her blunt haircut, or her face-lightening cream, and the infant Brigitte notably inherits her face. Indeed, the novel's obsession with Sophie's face is defined only in opposition to Martine's own: Sophie must look like her father because she does not look like her mother. Toward the novel's end, Martine's neutral absence becomes caught up with her continual attempt to escape her past, her nightmares, and the body which makes both real. Her suicide represents the logical end of this flight.
Where Martine's character is defined by her absence, her sister Atie is set against the absence of other people, defined by what she has lost or never had. In her youth, she loved Donald Augustin, who promised to marry her until he met another woman. After Martine's rape, Atie moved to Croix-des-Rosets to take care of the child Sophie. But when Martine sent Sophie an airplane ticket to New York, Atie was forced to let her go. With Sophie's departure, spinster Atie returned to Dame Marie to take care of her aging mother, knowing that Martine could not bear to do so. In Dame Marie, she is betrayed once more by her best friend Louise, a desperate woman trying to save the money to leave Haiti. When the money appears, Louise leaves without saying goodbye.
Atie is a character of great endurance, and it is not until Section Three that life's continual ironies begin to take their toll. When Sophie leaves for New York, Atie explains that she loves Martine too much not to let Sophie go. But by the time Sophie returns to Dame Marie with Brigitte, Atie has succumbed to despair, drinking with Louise and moping about the house. Where Martine's life is marked by sudden and violent pain, Atie's is a series of dull hurts, wounds bothered just enough so that they do not heal. Yet her continual pain evinces a deep resilience, a stubborn willingness to love again and be betrayed again. In Croix-des-Rosets, Sophie and Atie live across the street from the Augustins, and Atie secretly cries as she watches Donald and his wife prepare for bed. In Dame Marie, Atie must confront not simply Louise's departure but the fact that it was Grandmè Ifé who bought her pig, fed up with Louise's influence on her daughter. Atie is a character of great love and great endurance faced with a life of sacrifice and trivial pleasure. But not only is Atie's life not worthy of her, it seems callously indifferent. She sardonically curses the gods and wanders the night as if daring harm to befall her, but nothing happens.
Like the parable of the ten fingers, Atie's life is not her own. She is trapped in her village, her context, her duty and her woman's body, struggling heroically to fashion something of her own from nothing. She learns to read in her old age, and composes poems when no one is looking. She may threaten to die of chagrin, but such a volatile death would belie her true strength. Near the novel's beginning, Atie tells Sophie that she will know the people of Creation, who were strong and could bear anything, by the heavy weight which they have been chosen to bear. Against Martine's rape, nightmares and suicide, Atie stands unpitied and uncelebrated, loving despite herself and steadfast through the most undesirable of duties, suggesting that she, like the people in her story, has been chosen to carry a piece of the sky on her head.
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