I have been holding off writing this review because I read Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits as the inaugural book of a book club some friends and I started, and I don’t want to spoil our review day by posting too early. However, I decided to go ahead and post because I don’t like to get too behind on the blog and frankly, I really enjoyed this book and wanted to share it with you.
Allende’s beloved novel traces the experiences of the Truebas, a wealthy, land-owning family in Latin America headed by the hard and hot-headed patriarch Esteban but held together by the women: Trueba’s adored and eccentric wife Clara who communicates with the spirits but can go without speaking to more corporeal beings for years; Blanca, their daughter, more practical than her mother but who makes the tragic mistake of falling in love with Pedro Tercero, the son of her father’s ranch foreman, a love with violent consequences when Trueba discovers it; and Alba, their granddaughter, to whom he is absolutely devoted despite her progressive views and revolutionary companions which are so antithetical to his own. Their experiences trace the evolution of their unnamed country from a social and economic system based in land and servants to a revolutionary future that goes quite awry at great cost to Esteban Trueba.
Allende is one of the grand dames of the Latin American magical realism genre, and one can certainly see why in The House of the Spirits. I love how perfectly she melds magic and real–the magic is not necessarily normal, but it is an accepted part of life. Rosa, Clara’s sister, born with sea-green hair, is a paragon of beauty; her hair, unique and striking, is the key to that beauty. Clara’s communication with the spirits that fill the house is vitally important to some and an irritating nuisance to others, yet it is not strange. It is simply one of the quirks of the Truebas. And I love Allende’s turn-of-phrase. Something she repeatedly notes is how Clara keeps meticulous journals to “bear witness to life”. It is not Clara’s own life that she is keeping record of but of all life, a key distinction that exemplifies Clara, and I love the subtlety and importance of that particular phrase. Allende’s gorgeous language weaves this web of magic so thoroughly and beautifully that the reader gladly goes along for the ride. We accept that of course Rosa has beautiful sea-green hair. Why wouldn’t she? Allende’s magic is in capturing the reader and allowing them to suspend disbelief.
The story is primarily told from an unknown third person’s perspective, allegedly based around Allende’s own experiences with her grandfather. The narration maintains a lovely dreamy quality, cultivated through Clara’s own ethereal nature and maintained in the prose’s tone as long as she is alive. Interestingly, it amplifies all of the emotions: Blanca’s heartbreak is all the more tragic; Esteban Trueba’s rages are all the more over-the-top; Esteban Garcia, Trueba’s illegitimate grandson’s plotting is all the more sinister; Jaime, Trueba’s son’s morality all the more rigid. This dreaminess is lifted with Clara’s death, which puts into stark perspective the horrific violence she ultimately endures. And it is horrific. Allende shies away neither from the beauty nor the terror of this country’s history and the effect on its people.
However, the narrative is occasionally punctuated by Trueba himself speaking directly to the reader. I suspect this is a device to humanize him and allow the reader to develop some sort of empathy for him by the end of the novel. Quite frankly, it’s vital to feel something for him or else it will be an unsatisfying read. He is such a repugnant character in so many ways. For me, though, his moments of recollection, told from his sick bed when he is a very old man, feel much more like interruptions or even intrusions into the larger story. Ultimately they accomplish their goal, I guess. I didn’t completely abhor him and maybe even felt sorry for him at the end, but I wonder if there is a different way to achieve the goal of humanizing him. Perhaps, though, Allende wants his commentary to feel like interruptions. I don’t know, but it doesn’t quite work for me.
The House of the Spirits is a story of epic proportions, the passions of a family played out against the upheaval of the national stage. It’s sweeping melodrama at its finest, and yet Allende does not forget the details of individual and communal humanity that allow her readers to connect intensely with the characters and their joys and trials. Allende is a spectacular writer, and my only regret is that I took so long to introduce myself to her work. I’m looking forward to reading more.