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.