Breath, Eyes, Memory

by Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory

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Edwidge Danticat is a name anyone who appreciates serious, well-wrought fiction would do well to continue watching for. Her first novel, BREATH, EYES, MEMORY, is a marvelous literary achievement, calling to mind the debut of Carson McCullers, whose classic THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER was published when she was just twenty-three.

While BREATH, EYES, MEMORY is very much a Bildungsroman—a novel about growing up—Danticat writes with the confidence of someone who has put much thought and work into developing her craft. She controls the pace of her narrative and scenes quite well. More strikingly, she renders dialogue superbly, using paragraphing and elision to excellent effect.

The novel is the story of Sophie, first a twelve-year-old girl in a Haitian mountain village, later a young woman living with her mother in New York. In a masterstroke of self-discipline, Danticat leaves the book’s obvious backdrop—recent political events and largescale immigration by Haitians to the United States—almost completely implicit, making only the most gently glancing of references. In contrast, UNDER THE BONE by Anne-christine d’Adesky suffers by its failure to walk the fine line between literature and political advocacy. (On events from the headlines, two nonfiction books are strongly recommended: THE RAINY SEASON: HAITI SINCE DUVALIER [1989] by Amy Wilentz, and the forthcoming BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS: THE LEGACY OF DUVALIER by Mark Danner.)

Near the end, BREATH, EYES, MEMORY flirts with becoming a pamphlet in favor of psychotherapy. Yet even this has literary validity, underscoring as it does Sophie’s adult life as an American. The title is a bit—well—breathless. For a reviewer with experience and knowledge of Haiti, Danticat consistently strikes the right chords. “Listening to the song,” Sophie tells us, “I realized that it was neither my mother nor my Tante Atie who had given all the mother-and-daughter motifs to all the stories they told and the songs they sang. It was something that was essentially Haitian.” Haitian cultural and spiritual life is deep and rich, and is well served by a writer of Danticat’s sensitivity and ability.

With her large talent and her commercial good fortune at being an author with a “multicultural” background, Danticat should go far. One awaits eagerly her next novel and her book of short stories, both said to be in progress.


Campbell, Elaine. The Whistling Bird: Women Writers of the Caribbean. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1998. Includes a useful discussion of Danticat.

Charters, Mallay. “Edwidge Danticat: A Bitter Legacy Revisited.” Publishers Weekly 245, no. 33 (August 17, 1998): 42-43. A profile of the novelist. Discusses the experiences that led to the writing of Breath, Eyes, Memory and her other novels.

Shea, Renee H. “The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat.” Callaloo 19, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 382-390. Includes an interview with Danticat in which she discusses her feelings toward Haiti, her preoccupation with mothers and daughters, and the translation of Breath, Eyes, Memory into French.

Shea, Renee H. “Traveling Worlds with Edwidge Danticat.” Poets and Writers Magazine 25, no. 1 (January-February, 1997): 42-51. An overview of Danticat’s life and writings.

“Three Young Voices.” Interview with Edwidge Danticat, Veronica Chambers, and Sheneska Jackson. Essence, May, 1996. Danticat discusses her childhood and her life as a writer.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)


Critical Overview