Sophie Caco grows from a young girl to an adult woman with her own child. She is the emotional, as well as the narrative, heart of the novel. The third-person limited narration gives Sophie’s often bewildered view of a world over which she feels she has no control. She cannot stop herself from being shipped off to America; she cannot stop her mother’s nightmares and the tests; she cannot understand the circumstances of her own reactions to the events around her. She fights back the only way she knows how: by marrying Joseph and leaving her mother’s house. By the end, she comes closer to understanding her own behavior and the behavior of her family members, but the cost has been great—estrangement from her mother, problems with her husband, and anger at her family. Her relationship with her mother—who moves from a voice on a tape recording to a living presence to a tormentor to a role model—shapes her world in ways she only begins to understand by the end of the novel.
Tante Atie spent years of sacrifice to rear Sophie, only to have her returned to her mother. While she insists that Sophie belongs with her mother, the loss of Sophie greatly affects Atie’s life for the worse. Readers learn that Atie as a young woman planned to marry but that the man left her for someone else. Atie and Sophie live across the street from this man and his wife; Atie watches them at night and cries. When Sophie leaves, Atie returns to care for her mother—the duty of the elder, unmarried daughter. Sophie sees her suffering, but for many years cannot understand it.
Martine Caco also lives her life according to her duties. She works long hours to support herself, to send money to her mother, sister, and daughter, and to enable her to send for Sophie. She has endured many hardships, from the rape that resulted in Sophie’s birth to cancer to nightly terrors in her sleep. Martine desperately wants a better life for her daughter than the one she has lived.
Grandma Ife takes her role as matriarch seriously, never hesitating to instruct, correct, bully, and lead her family. Sophie comes to understand her wisdom, her ability to hear things others cannot, and her fear for the future of her family, but she holds her responsible as well for some of the indignities of her life, such as the “test.”
Sophie’s husband Joseph and Martine’s lover Marc also fit into the story, but both are presented as relatively flat, static characters. Both support the women in their lives and care deeply about them.
Sophie, her mother Martine, and Tante Atie are the three women at the core of the novel. All three suffer from their condition as women. Atie is rejected by the man she loves, a man whose marital happiness she is condemned to observe from close range, and she then must give up the niece she has raised since birth. Later in the novel, her friend Louise, who had introduced her to an intimacy and understanding she had never before experienced, abandons her. Tante Atie bitterly explains to Sophie the plight of the Haitian woman expected to dedicate each of her ten fingers to the needs of others. Martine never recovers from the brutality of the rape that forced her into exile and resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. In New York, she feels isolated by her menial work and dark skin, and her womanhood is further undermined by the loss of her breasts to cancer. Despite her considerable successes, including a better job and the love of a good man, she cannot keep her nightmares at bay, nor can she learn to believe in herself.
These two women offer Sophie very different versions of her birth. Martine notes that Sophie’s face is the same as the rapist’s, a constant reminder of the violence of her conception. Tante Atie speaks of a child “born out of the petal of roses, water from the stream, and a chunk of the sky.” Sophie must learn to embrace the love and rich heritage represented by her aunt’s words and to liberate her mind and body from the legacy of...
(The entire section is 1,717 words.)