One of the best books I’ve read this year is Love in the Time of Cholera. It swept me away in the most wonderful way. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende reminded me of that marvelous book, but it never quite stirred my soul.
This book, Allende’s first novel, follows the fictional Trueba family through four generations. Astute readers who know something of Chilean history will no doubt recognize that the family history echoes the 20th-century history of Chile, which Allende’s own family was part of. Her father’s cousin was Salvador Allende, the president of Chile who was overthrown by a coup d’état in 1973. In her novel about this period, Isabel Allende fictionalizes these events, using different names, which allows her to take some liberties with the story. A smart move, I think. Historical fiction writers who want to use real history as a jumping-off point without hewing to the known facts would do well to follow her example.
Allende’s fictional story tale is infused with magic, as the women of the family have visions and call on spirits. In the tradition of magical realism, these talents are a natural part of the characters’ lives. Not all the characters are interested in these spiritual activities, but the existence of spirits and the like aren’t generally treated as something open to question. The spirits are there. Some can hear and see them. Others can’t—or don’t care to. That is that.
Although the spiritual is ever present, it is the political that drives much of the narrative. Characters are bound by class and conviction to behave in certain ways. The wealthy take advantage of the poor, discarding them blithely when they’re done. People who love outside their class bring trouble upon themselves. Rebels attempt to overthrow the system, only to find themselves targeted by the ones they were rebelling against. There are no huge surprises in the plot; it follows the pattern of history.
Allende writes in long paragraphs of gorgeous prose that reminded me of Márquez’s lush writing style. Here, for example, is a description of two childhood friends growing up together:
They spent that summer oscillating between childhood, which still held them in its clasp, and their awakening as man and woman. There were times when they ran like little children, stirring up the chickens and exciting the cows, drinking their fill of fresh milk and winding up with foam mustaches, stealing fresh-baked bread straight from the oven and clambering up trees to build secret houses. At other times they hid in the forest’s thickest, most secret recesses, making beds of leaves and pretending they were married, caressing each other until they fell asleep exhausted. They were still innocent enough to remove their clothes and swim naked in the river, as they always had, diving into the cold water and letting the current pull them down against the shiny stones. But there were certain things they could no longer share. They learned to feel shame in each other’s presence. They no longer competed to see who could make the biggest puddle when they urinated, and Blanca did not tell him of the dark matter that stained her underwear once a month. Without anyone telling them, they realized that they could not act so freely in front of others.
Allende’s prose is beautiful, but it lacks some of the humor that I enjoyed so much in the Márquez. Also, the story jumps from third person to first person, with the sometimes despicable patriarch Esteban Trueba acting as the first-person narrator. There’s a reason for this technique that is explained in the last chapter, but it was jarring, and I’m not convinced that it worked—especially without the information in the final chapter. This might be a case where a minor spoiler early on would make for a better reading experience.
Another barrier, common to many multigenerational narratives, is the fact that not every generation is equally interesting. Personally, I found each generation more interesting than the last, and my favorite parts were toward the end of the book, but that won’t be the case with every reader. I suspect that many people will be turned off when the political struggles, which include some stomach-churning violence, start to take precedence over the stories of the lord of the manor and the star-crossed lovers from the earlier chapters.
I had mixed feelings about the characters. Few were entirely likable, and most that I liked did not appear until late in the book. Some, particularly Esteban, engaged in shockingly horrible behavior, usually against women, that is treated almost matter-of-factly. I wondered for a time if this wasn’t yet another book that doesn’t take violence against women seriously enough. As it turns out, that is not the case, but it doesn’t become evident until the final pages of the book. The other characters sometimes felt like representations of the particular types—the fiery woman, the passionate rebel, the vengeful sadist, and so on. But Allende does make a point of exploring why they are as they are, and in a story about the reoccurring patterns of history, the presence of archetypal characters might not be a bad thing.
This was not, for me, as absorbing a read as Love in the Time of Cholera or as the other Allende books that I’ve read (Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and Zorro), but I’m glad I read it. If you’re interested in Latin American literature or history, this is worth a look.