By Edwidge Danticat
A review by Bob Corbett
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
ISBN # 1-56947-005-7 $20.00 (hardbound)
"According to Tante Atie, each finger had a purpose. It was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn't her fault, she said. Her ten fingers had been named for her even before she was born. Sometimes, she even wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have two left for herself." (p. 151).
Edwidge Danticat's first novel is the exploration of three Haitian women struggling with lives given them by birth. Sophie, raised by her Tante Atie for twelve years in Haiti, finally joins her mother in Brooklyn. Tante Atie never leaves Haiti and while knowing of the two fingers for herself, never has the energy or courage to seek them out. Finally there is Martine, Sophie's mother, whose life is dominated by the traumatic memory of the brutal rape which spawned Sophie.
Sophie and Martine are caught between two cultures. The ten fingers of Haitian tradition pull heavily on them. The very different lives they lead in Brooklyn pull them away toward more freedom, or at least different fingers of control. Sophie is acutely aware of this tension and struggles to free herself. But she is deeply mired in her mother's problems. Martine seems not to be aware of the cultural tensions, so possessed is her life and even her sleep and dreams with the rape she suffered as a young teenager in Haiti.
These women struggle in tragic lives, playing out the ago old drama of the conflict between individual freedom and cultural and historical control. Only Sophie has much hope of advancing beyond the rigid controls of Haitian culture, but even here the story is unclear, the outcome left in doubt.
Typically I review books about Haiti encouraging North Americans to read them in order that they might learn more about this little known country. My primary concern is usually simply that they are books about Haiti. This moving and powerful novel is different. It is a first rate novel independent of its being about Haiti. It is a book about three women, a book about the power of our history and upbringing to control our lives. It is a novel about the struggle of three individuals to rise above the shaping of their history and to take control of their own lives. It's not a story of much success, but of people in motion, some more than others, struggling with pain suffered from the ten fingers of their pasts.
Only secondarily is it a novel of Haiti. But it is an excellent one at that. We are taken intimately into a rural Haitian village and some curious and cultural practices that make Haiti a unique and exciting culture to know.
Danticat writes with great sensitivity, a delicate attention to detail, and a depth of emotion and insight which makes it an extremely rewarding read, a book which is difficult to put down.
Film maker Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs; Philadelphia; and three documentaries of Haiti) has purchased the film right to this book. Let's hope that it will result in a major film. But the book is much too rich for one to wait for the film. It's a must for anyone loving a challenging and tender novel.
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