Saturday, August 6, 2011

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende: A review


The House of the Spirits was Isabel Allende's first novel and it placed her squarely in the school of magical realism that has been so important in contemporary Latin American literature. It is an epic tale of a family in Chile in the 20th century, living through times of change and upheaval, the rise in popularity of socialism, the election of Salvador Allende as president, and ultimately the coup which brought many years of tyranny and horror to the country.

The story has its beginnings with the del Valle family, the origin of Rosa the Beautiful and her youngest sister, Clara the Clairvoyant. Rosa becomes engaged to Esteban Trueba who determines to make his fortune in the mines. He succeeds in that goal but before he can marry her, Rosa dies by accidental poisoning. The accident is that the poison was meant for her father.

After Rosa's death, Esteban continues to prosper but he becomes a violent and wicked man, a serial rapist of the female tenants on the estate which he owned, the Tres Marias. As a consequence of his brutality, he was despised by the tenants, but they had nowhere else to go and so were tied to the estate and had to endure his mistreatment of them. Eventually, Esteban receives word that his mother, in the city, is dying and he returns there, where he promises her to marry and produce grandchildren for her. (He has, in fact, already peopled the countryside with her grandchildren but they are bastards and don't count.) He determines to return to the del Valle family and ask for the hand of another of their daughters in marriage. The only one left who is available is Clara the Clairvoyant. Their match is the beginning of the Trueba family saga.

Allende tells her story through four generations of women, beginning with the matriarch Nivea del Valle, mother of Clara and Rosa. The ethereal Clara, who sees and communes with spirits, becomes the matriarch of the Trueba family and it is she who is the glue which holds the family - and the story - together. Her first child is a daughter, Blanca, who, as a child, learns to love a boy who is the son of her father's caretaker on the estate. It is a highly inappropriate match but when they grow up, it produces a daughter, Alba. Alba also falls in love with the wrong sort - a socialist caught up in the political turmoil of the '60s and '70s. The stories of all these women make up the body of this tale, but they are all connected by the violent, reprehensible Esteban Trueba.

I found Ms. Allende's writing mesmerizing. Once I was into the story, it was very hard for me to put the book down. It has a whimsical spirit but the tale is moving and absorbing. She writes in rich and meticulous detail. It was an extremely satisfying read.

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