The House of the Spirits

House of the SpiritsOne 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.

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18 Responses to The House of the Spirits

  1. bookmagic says:

    I enjoyed this book but not as much as Love and Shadows and Eva Luna. I have mixed feelings about some of her more recent work, like Daughter of Fortune. I have Ines of my Soul on my shelf but I haven’t read it. I also haven’t read Love in the Time of Cholera but it’s on my list.
    Great review

  2. Steph says:

    I haven’t read anything by Allende, but given that I’ve enjoyed Marquez so much, I’ve wanted to read her. I’ve always thought that I should/would start with this one, but your review makes me wonder if I should perhaps try something else instead. Maybe Daughter of Fortune?

    (I fully admit that I haven’t read this one because the only copy I can find at the used bookstore is an ugly mass market paperback version and I really don’t want to purchase it!)

  3. Teresa says:

    bookmagic: Thanks! I’d like to read some of Allende’s books that came between this and her recent books, and Eva Luna is one that I’ve heard particularly good things about, so I’ll keep it in mind.

    Steph: I read the other Allende books I mention a few years ago and liked them a lot, but most of my memory of them has to do with the story and characters, not so much the writing style, which is where I really saw the parallels with Marquez. (Well, along with the setting and the magical realism, but that almost goes without saying.)

  4. litlove says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book for years without ever getting around to it. I really like magical realism although I’ve read more of the European variety than the Latin American whence it really originated. Having read your excellent review, I might not start on Allende here (certainly not in the mood for violence these days!) but I would like to read her at some point.

  5. Claire says:

    I read a lot of Isabel Allende a number of years ago and found a lot of similarities with Marquez. I found that The House of the Spirits reminded me more of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Shadows of Love in a Time of Cholera. I love Marquez’s writing and style and find it in a different league to Allende; he is one of my favourite writers and she is enjoyable and diverting.

  6. I am very poor at reading books by South American authors. I really want to read more – especially Marquez. Allende has been recommended to me too and I now have a few of her books. I want to read Love in the Time of Cholera first though. I’m sorry you didn’t love this book as much as you hoped, but thank you for the honest review.

  7. Teresa says:

    litlove: Allende is definitely worth reading. For what it’s worth, the violence is only stomach-churning in a few spots toward the end, but in those spots, it’s quite terrible (but not gratuitous). There was some violence that was integral to the plot in other books that I’ve read, but I don’t remember how graphic the descriptions were.

    Claire: Thanks for the tip on Of Love and Shadows. I might read that sooner than later. I agree that Marquez and Allende are similar but in different leagues.

    Jackie: I believe Allende and Marquez are the only South American authors I’ve read (and I’ve only read the one Marquez). I’ve liked all the S.A. fiction I’ve read to varying degrees, but this is my least favorite so far. Still it was worth the time.

  8. Kailana says:

    Like you, I enjoyed this book but not as much as other Allende novels. I read it very separate from Marquez, so I never really compared the two, but in hindsight I can see what you are saying.

  9. Rebecca Reid says:

    I’ve enjoyed all the magical realism I’ve read. I’m pleased you enjoyed Love in the Time of Cholera and I think I’ll go there next.

  10. Dorothy W. says:

    I’ve thought about reading Allende, but haven’t gotten around to it yet, and wasn’t sure how good her writing was. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it so much, and perhaps I’ll be more likely to try her work now.

  11. claire says:

    This book also reminded me of 100 Years. Definitely, Garcia Marquez is more skilled, and this couldn’t compare to Cholera, but this is in fact my favourite Allende so far. I didn’t exactly love Daughter of Fortune (at times it felt forced); The House of the Spirits felt more natural to me. I’d like to read Portrait in Sepia to complete the family saga but not rushing to do it because of my experience with Daughter of Fortune. (Maybe I should reread DoF?)

  12. Teresa says:

    Kailana: I only read the Marquez a few months ago, so it’s actually fresher in my mind than the other Allendes.

    Rebecca: If you enjoy Cholera half as much as I did it’ll be worth it for you.

    Dorothy: I like her writing well enough. It’s somewhere between literary and popular, which I often enjoy when I want something that’s not a challenge but a little meaty.

    claire: Interesting. I know others who like this best, too. For me, the overarching narrative device (sometimes first, sometimes third, someone summarizing a journal) made this feel forced. I think I liked Portrait in Sepia best–I read it first, so I’ve gone totally backwards :-)

  13. Ann says:

    I always feel guilty when I read reviews of Allende’s works because I’ve only read one, ‘Daughter of Fortune’ and really enjoyed it, but have just never found time to go back. I really can’t add anymore to the tbr pile, but…..

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  16. Jorge says:

    Read the house of spirits if you ever get a chance! The only possible way you would not like the book is if you do not have a clear understanding on it. This book has so many meanings behind it, but you have to read it with the idea of patriarchy in mind, because many of the meanings are related to it. I would recommend this book 100%

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  18. Dulal says:

    The House of the Spirits, one of the best novels I’ve read so far, is an epic saga. It reminds one undoubtedly of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The characters in this novel, especially the female ones, are, indeed, live and charming. I’ve enjoyed it much as I have City of the Beasts, another novel by Allende. Hope to read Daughter of Fortune very soon.

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