This is the story of four generations of women in an unnamed South American country: Nivea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba. All four names mean white, and each woman is, in her own way, peculiarly free from the dark wretchedness that surrounds her: sometimes because she’s wealthy, sometimes because she’s young and innocent, sometimes because she’s in love, sometimes because she’s a fierce idealist, and sometimes because she belongs to the world of the spirits and can’t be bothered to think about anything else.
The real world swirls around these women, mostly in the form of men. While the women, until Alba, go almost untouched by the turbulent politics of the country, the men are in it up to their eyeballs: Esteban Trueba, Clara’s husband, the ill-tempered, landowning patrón; Jaime, Clara’s doctor son who literally gives away the shirt on his back to the poor; Fernando Tercero Garcia, Blanca’s lover, whose folk songs inspire the masses.
Allende creates a world in which love and war and magic, rape and alchemy and the diseases of chickens are all equally likely. Each chapter hares off after a new character, describing history, back story, genealogy, and anecdote until I’d forgotten the original plot line. The description of the eponymous House of the Spirits gives an excellent sense of the feel of the book itself:
He could hardly guess that that solemn, cubic, dense, pompous house… would end up full of protuberances and incrustations, of twisted staircases that led to empty spaces, of turrets, of small windows that could not be opened, doors hanging in midair, crooked hallways, and portholes that linked the living quarters so that people could communicate during the siesta, all of which were Clara’s inspiration.
It’s enjoyable to explore, and the prose is very pretty, but where is it leading? I never felt connected to most of the characters, even to Clara or Esteban, with whom we spend the most time. All the characters seem to come to a dead end, fatal flaws of pride, anger, lust, or simple laziness creating a vortex that sucks them to a standstill. None of them seem worthy of the vivid, magical world they inhabit, despite one amusing or revolting anecdote after another.
In the last 75 or so pages of the book, a military coup leads to a much more intense experience with one of the characters. We get to know her better than any of the other women in the book, understanding her character and her motivation. She’s shaken from her inertia and moved to write. To me, it seemed like one of the singing birds — a repeated symbol in the novel — set free from its cage. Here was a character who could lead somewhere! Here was the explanation for some of the horrifying violence against women, some of the serious personality problems!… and here was the end of the book.
While I didn’t find this book very satisfying, I mostly enjoyed reading it. Is that strange? The writing, as I said, could be pretty good, even in translation, and Allende had a vision that was dark and biting at times. I’ll try her again, and see. (Read Teresa’s excellent review here.)
Note: I did want to mention that I know a lot of people who say they have problems with “magical realism.” From what I can tell, that term’s been spread very thin. It appears to mean writing in which magical or spiritual events take place in the same matter-of-fact way as everyday events: John, darling, dinner’s ready and the Sibyl has just uttered a prophecy, could you wash your hands? That is certainly true of this book: spirits come and go like other members of the household, and oddities take place as if this were a family of werewolves or mer-people. But it doesn’t bother me at all. That’s just the world this takes place in. If you’re at all familiar with medieval literature, it’s rather like that, with saints and angels and relics and incantations offering intervention at every turn. Nice to think a world beyond what we can see could be so everyday, in some ways.