Monday, March 7, 2011

The Latest from Isabel Allende

I first fell in love with Isabel Allende after reading The House of the Spirits. This was a very long time ago after I had ended a long marriage to a cold, withholding man and the passion and fire of an Allende was just what the doctor ordered. I was relying on Ms. Allende and also writers like Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) to help me rediscover the spirited person who had been tamped down to the point of disappearing. Only one problem, Allende's character ended up mad and Esquivel's burned to death after a torrid night with her true love.

I returned to Allende and cemented my loyalty to her after reading Paula, a beautiful but difficult book about her only daughter who suffered from a lengthy, debilitating disease that eventually killed her. It is in these very personal books (Aphrodite, My Invented Country) that I think Allende excels. Her forays into historical fiction? Not so much.

Still, I knew that Island Beneath the Sea was about Haiti and the black uprising that freed the the nation from French rule and gave Toussaint Louverture a place in the history books.
It seemed prudent to learn all about Haiti at this time in its fragile existence and fiction is often a palatable way to get one's truths. I'm afraid that I've been disappointed.

I have been listening to this book for what seems like months and, though I can't deny being caught up in the lives of the characters and willing to follow through until I find out if the enslaved heroine, Zarite, will finally be given her promised freedom, the novel feels lightweight to me. Such  serious subjects as slavery, brutality, corruption, and imperialism deserve a more in-depth treatment, while Allende seems to only be skimming the surface. Her research is impeccable, surprisingly, it's her people who remain disappointingly remote. I'm finding it hard to get a bead on what's driving them.

The story centers around a French colonialist, Valmoraine, who arrives in Saint Domingue to tend to his family's sugar planation, and the enslaved woman, Varite, hired to care for Valmoraine's sickly wife and young son Maurice. As too often happened, Varite is initially raped by and then becomes, through no choice of her own, Valmoraine's "other woman," a relationship that lasts over decades and produces a little girl.

Varite, though, has known true passion in the arms of one man, Gambo, once a kitchen slave, who escapes and makes a name for himself in the revolution, helping her and the Valmoraine family to flee Haiti for the relative safety of Cuba and eventually on to New Orleans. I suspect that Isabel Allende just doesn't have it in her to explore the depths of depravity that institutionalized slavery engenders. Can any free person really imagine what it is to be treated as a non-person, one who is invisible and without rights of any kind?

Well, one fiction writer did. For a more realistic treatment of the conditions in the islands (in this case, Jamaica)  up to and during the slave revolt, I prefer Marlon James and his horrifying, heartbreaking, The Book of Night Women, which I blogged about here last year.

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