Set against the backdrop of the violent post-Duvalier years in Haiti, this novel traces the development of Sophie, the product of a violent rape. Having been raised lovingly by her aunt in a village near Port-au-Prince for 12 years, Sophie is suddenly sent for by her mother (who had immigrated to the United States as an asylum seeker). Living in New York, Sophie discovers that her mother is haunted by violent nightmares, a remnant of the trauma she had suffered before fleeing Haiti.

Part Two opens as Sophie, now 18, falls in love with her neighbor, a musician named Joseph. Her mother, upon finding out about Sophie's love interest, begins the humiliating tradition of her mother, "testing" Sophie's virginity by inserting a finger in her vagina to make sure the hymen was not broken. After several "tests," Sophie painfully breaks her own hymen with a pestle and immediately runs off with Joseph.

Part Three of the novel opens about a year later, when Sophie has left her husband and returns to Haiti with her baby daughter. Here, she begins learning about her mother's past as well as telling her aunt and grandmother about her own current sexual dysfunction and her bulimia. Sophie and her mother reunite and reconcile in Haiti and later return to the States where Sophie returns to Joseph and begins a kind of therapy that includes rituals from Haitian, African, and Chicana traditions.

Meanwhile, Sophie's mother becomes pregnant (by her long time lover and friend) and increasingly agitated, finally committing suicide. At the funeral, in Haiti, Sophie runs into the cane field where her mother had been raped some 20 years earlier. As she is screaming her grief and rage, she tears at the cane stalks. Rather than attempting to stop her, Sophie's aunt and grandmother watch her, finally asking, "are you free?" and then insisting, "You are free!" (p. 233)


This novel weaves together issues of sexual development, sexuality, and body-image as well as the relationship of political violence to sexual violence. It also looks at family relationships and the possibility of healing even within ravaged histories. The book is beautifully evocative of Haiti and of the experience of immigration. [Sophie recalls the hell of going to school with non-Haitians where "HBO"--Haitian Body Odor--was a common complaint and where one was immediately suspected of having HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). She also remembers the ways a trans-national Haitian community was forged in New York.]

The brief section that deals with Sophie's therapy experience barely escapes trendy cliché, but usefully looks at the issue of cross-cultural, multicultural therapeutic methods. Danticat links the political reality of Sophie's mother's rape by one of Haiti's highly feared Tonton Macoute (government death squad members) with Sophie's own troubles, but insists that healing must go beyond political analysis to include personal growth and change, a growth that includes coming to terms with the secrets and trauma of one's own individual and familial history.


Random House: Vintage

Place Published

New York



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