BREATH, EYES, MEMORY
Sexual traumas link a Haitian mother and her daughter in this wonderfully self-assured debut by 24-year-old Haitian-American Danticat. The world of Sophie Caco, her beloved guardian Tante Atie, and her grandmother IfC the matriarch of this peasant family, is bounded by the sugar-cane fields of rural Haiti. When 12-year-old Sophie is summoned to New York to live with the family provider, Maxine, the mother she cannot remember, she is dismayed. Maxine is perpetually tired after her nursing-home double-shift; she lives alone and dates a lawyer called Marc. She also tells Sophie that she is the product of a rape; a stranger forced himself on Maxine in a sugar-cane field. Seeing her daughter again has revived memories of the rape, and Maxine is suffering constant nightmares. Six years later, Sophie, who has never had a boyfriend, falls in love with their much older next-door neighbor Joseph, a black American jazz musician. Maxine follows a Haitian tradition and checks regularly to make sure Sophie is still a virgin. Horrified by this violation of her body, Sophie deflowers herself with a pestle and elopes with Joseph, enduring sex because she now hates her body, though her baby Brigitte is a consolation. Slowly, through her family's sheltering love on a return visit to Haiti and the new-world ministrations of her therapist, Sophie comes to understand her mother ("I knew my hurt and hers were links in a long chain"), but it's too late: Maxine, pregnant by Marc and racked by nightmares again, dies during a crude self-abortion. Danticat keeps graceful control of this difficult material while adroitly sketching the larger political context and making both peasants and pediatricians equally convincing. An impressive first outing.