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BOOK REVIEW / Life in a voodoo Valhalla

BREATH, EYES, MEMORY Edwidge Danticat Abacus £8.99
Haiti has always had a bad press when it comes to voodoo. Victor Hugo's Haitian novel, Bug-Jargal, featured ritual decapitation, and this sort of shock-horror fiction established the country as a land of satanic darkness with devil dolls and ceremonial tom-toms. Things got even more spooky. Remember Ian Fleming's Mr Big in Live and Let Die? He worshipped the malevolent totem of Baron Samedi. In voodoo this is the God of Death who stalks the cemeteries in topper and tails, puffing a large cheroot: President Franois (Papa Doc) Duvalier was happy to resemble this graveyard Groucho Marx. Whooo! Haiti can really put the frighteners on you.

Edwige Danticat was born in Haiti during the dictatorship of Papa Doc. Then, as now, voodoo is all that remains for the voiceless poor of this beautiful, bedevilled country. Danticat describes voodoo as a peaceable creed - not Fleming's satanic cult of darkness. For the majority of Haitians, it is still the only way to rise above poverty and political oppression.

Folk wisdom invades every area of Haitian life. In Breath, Eyes, Memory we learn how Tonton Macoute means "Uncle Knapsack" in Creole patois. This mythological figure appears in Haitian nursery stories as the bugaboo that kidnaps wicked children in his straw bag under cover of dark. The undertow of folklore in Danticat's book recalls Haiti's most celebrated novel, Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain (1944) which describes the legendary Valhalla of Guinea where the voodoo spirits reside and to where the souls of dead Haitians return. This vision of heaven as ancestral Africa haunts Danticat's young heroine, Sophie, as she leaves her beloved aunt Atie and Grandma If in Haiti to live in New York with a mother she scarcely knows: "I come from a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head."

Danticat gives a sad picture of Haitians exiled in New York: overcrowded tenements have replaced the gingerbread houses of the Caribbean. Sophie's mother, Martine, is desperate to adopt the ways of white America yet half in thrall to voodoo. At school, Haitians are taunted with having HBO - Haitian Body Odour - and are accused of carrying Aids because only the "Four Hs" catch the virus - heroin addicts, haemophiliacs, homosexuals, and Haitians. For six years Sophie studies hard while her mother scrapes a wage at a nursing home. One day Sophie learns the awful secret of her birth. In a cane field her mother had been raped by a Tonton Macoute. Each night in New York, Martine suffers bad dreams at the memory; all she longs for now is to die and return to Guinea.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is the story of how Sophie grapples with her mother's past and tries to reconcile Creole customs with American ways. Martine is terrified of losing Sophie. Beware of American men, she warns; all they want is bip bam, thank you, ma'am. When Sophie falls for a saxophonist from Louisiana, it seems all is lost.

Edwige Danticat, 27, has written a first novel of precocious maturity which mingles past and present, the horrors and delights of Haiti, in a quiet and dignified prose that would be impressive in a writer twice her age.

Ian Thomson