Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702
Breath, Eyes, Memory tells the story of Sophie Caco from her younger years in Haiti to her mother’s death. Over the course of the novel, Sophie must come to terms with her family, her family’s past, her childhood, and her own identity.
The third-person narrator begins with Sophie in Haiti, living with her Tante Atie, who had moved from her mother’s home to town to assure Sophie’s education. The early part of the novel (part 1) shows the details of Sophie’s world: the close neighborhood, the political turmoil, the struggles of Tante Atie as a single woman in this society, and Sophie’s struggles to understand Atie’s sorrow. During this section, Sophie learns that her mother, Martine, has sent for her to come to America and live.
Sophie’s ambiguous feelings about her identity are apparent when she tries to give Atie a Mother’s Day card, which Atie insists she give to her mother instead—the mother who is only a voice on the tape recordings she sends regularly. When Sophie arrives in New York, she learns that her mother works two jobs to support herself and send money home to Haiti. Sophie also learns that her birth was the result of a rape by a man who kept his face covered; her mother dreams nightly of this horror and the faceless man.
In part 2, Sophie has started college. She and her mother have moved to a larger house; her mother continues to work two jobs, and Sophie continues to struggle with the attitudes of those around her regarding her Haitian heritage. During this time, Sophie meets Joseph, an older musician who lives next door. Martine feels strongly about what she has been taught about a mother’s duty to protect her daughter’s chastity and reputation. When Martine discovers that Sophie is involved with a man, she insists on carrying out a “test” of her virginity—a humiliating ordeal that Martine and Atie also suffered through with Grandma Ife. To escape this ordeal, Sophie bodily injures herself to ensure that she will fail the test. She asks Joseph to marry her and take her with him to Providence; the prospect of living in a town named after the Creator encourages Sophie.
Part 3 begins with Sophie’s return to Haiti with her daughter, Brigitte, to visit Atie and Grandma Ife, a trip she has undertaken without telling her husband. Atie again lives with her mother. Sophie quickly sees the strained relationship between her aunt and grandmother, as Atie has learned to read, drinks rum, and disappears for hours at night. Martine arrives also, having been called by Joseph to report that Sophie has disappeared and having been told by her mother that Sophie had arrived in Haiti. Sophie asks her mother about the test—as she had asked her grandmother—and receives the same reply: They did it because their mothers had done it. While tenuous, a reconciliation does take place between the mother and daughter. In this section, readers learn that Sophie experiences sexual difficulty with her husband and struggles to overcome and understand her past, an attempt that has brought her to her grandmother’s. The interactions among the four generations of women reveal the complex dynamics of the family.
In part 4, Martine and Sophie return to New York, where Sophie spends the night with her mother. Their conversation reveals that Sophie suffers from bulimia and that Martine is pregnant. The child’s father is a long-term partner whom Martine has refused to marry. Her pregnancy surprises her—cancer has resulted in two mastectomies—and brings back many painful memories of the circumstances of her first pregnancy. Sophie reunites with her husband, who finally meets Martine a week later. Sophie belongs to a support group for women who have suffered sexual abuse; she receives counseling, and she struggles with her marriage. Sophie is distraught when her mother’s lover calls to tell her that Martine has committed suicide to end her pregnancy. All of them return to Haiti for the burial, according to her mother’s wishes, and the novel ends with the four generations of Caco women again reunited by the tragic event.