The House of the Spirits

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.

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10 Responses to The House of the Spirits

  1. Kailana says:

    I read this so long ago it is hard to say what I would think of it on a reread, but I did enjoy it when I read it. I actually had read Daughter of Fortune first and then decided I had to read more from her.

    • Jenny says:

      I enjoyed it, too, but ultimately I wasn’t happy with either the characterization or the structure. It’s a stunning debut, though, which is what makes me think I might like others of hers better.

  2. “Magical realism” always strikes me as a way to have supernatural elements in a story without being labelled as any kind of speculative fiction, which makes it hugely loaded for me. Heh. But I’m glad you got some enjoyment out of this.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t put a lot of stock in labels, so that particular objection doesn’t trouble me one bit! You could put all the books in the bookstore under one heading as far as I’m concerned and I wouldn’t care. I actually do enjoy it when people take supernatural things in stride, as if the evil eye or a mermaid were just as much to be expected as a union strike.

  3. Emily says:

    I think you’re right that the “magical realism” label gets overused these days, and it’s something I’ve probably been guilty of, so…duly noted. Your post got me thinking, because I do like the idea that “magical” elements of life could have a hum-drum cast about them and vice versa, yet I am routinely bothered by what I think of as “magical realism.” Sometimes it bugs me because it just feels so unnecessary, the way it got thrown into so much literary fiction in the 70’s-90’s, in the heyday of García Marquez and, later, Rushdie. I’ve read some novels where it just seemed like a super-odd, strange artistic choice—Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet leaps to mind, which was otherwise this gritty tale of working-class Western Australian life, but with magic jumping fish thrown in.

    But more than that I suppose it feels overdone in the symbolism department to me at times. Like the scene in One Hundred Years of Solitude where the saintly character actually gets lifted up through the ceiling by a heavenly ray. I mean…I get it. She’s a saint. It just seems over the top. And the psychic connection among all the kids in Midnight’s Children: it strikes me like the equivalent of a huge blinking marquee: INDIA WAS BORN THAT NIGHT. I suppose I tend to prefer my symbolism toned down a little. Or more psychological, or something. I’m not sure.

    Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking about this!

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I can definitely understand an objection to heavy-handed symbolism, whatever form it takes. What I really *like* about magical realism (if I’m understanding it correctly) is a sort of countercultural, or at least counter-Western-cultural, assumption that the supernatural just lives with us all the time and you don’t have to go and seek it. That yes, of course, prophecies and spirits and alchemy and whatnot are just as real as physics and medicine and greenhouses, and co-exist, and so if you stumble across a werewolf in the Chilean countryside, why act all surprised? It’s a pleasing conceit.

  4. Oh, I so hate that this wasn’t satisfying for you. I absolutely love this book and count it as one of my all-time favorites. Allende is such a fantastic writer, and though I didn’t like Daughter of Fortune, I really liked Island Beneath the Sea.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m so glad you love it! And I did like the prose, even though I thought there might have been some problems with the translation. I just wasn’t totally happy with the characterization or the structure. But knowing that this was a debut novel just blows me away. Thanks for the recommendations!

  5. Teresa says:

    Sounds like our impressions on this one were quite similar. I really liked the last section, but the rest was uneven.This is my least favorite of the Allende novels I’ve read, and I’ve gathered that the ones I’ve read (Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and Zorro) are not generally considered her best. (Eva Luna or Of Love and Shadows will probably be my next.)

  6. softdrink says:

    I don’t have problems with magical realism, but I do have problems with Allende. She’s a bit wordy for my tastes. Or maybe I’ve just picked the wrong books.

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