Author: Isabel Allende
Translator: Magda Bogin
Publisher: Everyman’s Library
Publishing Date: 2005
Number of Pages: 488 pages
Genre: Family Saga, Magical Realism, South American Fiction
In the triumph of magic realism, Allende constructs a spirit-ridden world and fills it with colourful and all-too-human inhabitants. The Trueba family’s passions, struggles and secrets span three generations and a century of violent social change, culminating in a crisis that brings the proud and tyrannical patriarch and his beloved granddaughter to opposite sides of the barricades. Against a backdrop of revolution and counter-revolution, Allende depicts a family whose private bonds of love and hatred are more complex and enduring than the political allegiances that set them at odds.
Following my September Man Booker Prize Month, I have decided to close out my 2018 Top 20 Reading List in October by taking on the last three books on the list – Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I decided to start with Allende’s work believing that it is the least complex of the three books as the other two books have developed quite the reputation as amongst the most complex reads of all times.
When I obtained a copy of this book, I was prepared to embark on a magical journey reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years Solitude. The title and the synopsis of the The House of the Spirits echoes that of the Nobel Laureate’s work. I am fascinated with how South American authors have developed their own flair of magical realism that distinguishes them from other authors. It is this fascination that led me to include Allende’s work in my 2018 Top 20 Reading List.
The House of the Spirits relates the story of the Trueba family – Esteban Trueba and his wife, Clara, their children Blanca, Jaime and Nicholas, and their granddaughter Alba. Over three generations, the narrative takes us to a journey to the Chilean countryside where Esteban Trueba built his fortune to the bustling capital where the Trueba family built their life. Just like Rosa, Clara’s older sister who first captivated Esteban’s heart, Clara possesses something that sets her apart from the crowd – her clairvoyance. This unusual pairing saw the convergence of wealth, romance, politics, and ultimately human values in a whirlpool of events that spanned nearly a century.
“Just as when we come into the world, when we die we are afraid of the unknown. But the fear is something from within us that has nothing to do with reality. Dying is like being born: just a change.” ~ Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
My initial apprehension on Allende’s work was borne out of my previous reading experience with Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude which overwhelmed me. The House of the Spirits seems to be headed that way, especially in the opening chapter where Clara and Rosa’s Uncle Marcos’ quirky enterprises tipped into a magically laden reading journey. But as the story progressed and started building up, I have surmised that this is an entirely different story, although the centrifugal point of both stories is a family caught in their internal turmoil.
Contrary to expectations, the reading journey was light. Interestingly, the story is nearly bereft of magically laden themes. There was clairvoyance, telekinesis and spirits but it was more grounded to reality than most of the books I have read. The shared traits between Filipinos and South Americans made it easier to appreciate the narrative and understand the different characters’ motivations and behaviors. The reference to spirits, and even the stories about spirits, is something South Americans and Filipinos share; both have identical superstitious beliefs on nearly everything. Just like South Americans, Filipinos value their families as well.
The major theme in the story is family. The Trueba house is highly patriarchal, which is also common in Asian households. Esteban Trueba’s influence was stamped all over the household. His flashes of anger and his grievances were overlooked, if not, tolerated. He was feared by his children, and eventually by his wife. This resulted into alienation amongst the members of the family. But there are two profound things underlined in the novel – in tough times, one can always rely on his family, and no matter what ones’ grievances are, the family will always welcome you with open arms. There is one undeniable fact as well that was incorporated in the story – the beautiful relationship of grandchildren with their grandparents.
But The House of the Spirits is more than just the story of the Trueba family. It delved on more important facets that were subtly obscured for most of the narrative. In a triumph of creative writing, , Allende combined a political atmosphere into the narrative. Midway through the story, the narrative begun shifting as different political ideologies were incorporated into the story. This introduction to a different subject stirred the story into a different direction. One can easily glean the subtle references to Chilean history, from democracy to socialism to military junta and eventually to absolute dictatorship.
The political aspects of the novel are something that was easier for me to relate to because it uncannily mirrors what happened in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship. Moreover, what Allende depicted on the latter parts of the story reflects the current situation in my country – from the proliferation of communist ideas in schools to widespread militarization. This makes the story more relevant for me as a reader. I am still hopeful, however, that we won’t trod the same dark path we have once walked once upon a time.
“Just as when we come into the world, when we die we are afraid of unknown things. But the fear is something from within us that has nothing to do with reality.” ~ Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
Beyond family and politics, the most important message of the novel lies in the end. And it was something that I did not expect but it was something that has candidly developed over the narrative. The book’s message of forgiveness is its highest and purest forms. At the end of the story, Alba contemplated revenge for the atrocities that was committed against her. However, upon deeper reflection, she has realized that revenge will not put an end to the cycle of violence that her family has been subjected to. The moment she let go of the evils of her past is one of the most captivatingly written passages in the story. It was filled with serenity.
“And now I seek my hatred and I cannot find it… It would be very difficult for me to avenge all those who should be avenged, because my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite. I have to break that terrible chain. I want to think that my task is life and that my mission is not to prolong hatred but simply to fill these page…” The scene captured by these powerful lines left a lasting impact. There are choices that we must make, whether we want to or not. And how Alba and Allende wrapped up the entire narrative was nothing short of wonderful and amazing.
Beyond the interesting plot, Allende conjured many interesting characters who possesses varying personalities. It is their colorful personalities that gave the narrative varying textures. Every character was carefully thought of; hence, the readers react strongly to them. Moreover, the mix in personalities was well balanced; take for instance Esteban Trueba’s roughness which was offset by Clara’s timidity. It is inescapable that Esteban Trueba’s domineering presence dominated the narrative.
Conversations in the story were very sparse although there were numerous interactions amongst the different characters. Allende used lengthy paragraphs to describe different events. It can be bothersome at first but as one immerses deeper, the unusual writing style underlines Allende’s superlative descriptive prowess. Family sagas have that tendency and in the case of The House of the Spirits, it did work because of the interesting plot. However, the endless paragraphs might be a drag to most readers.
“The point was not to die, since death came anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle.” ~ Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
The House of the Spirits is a great and captivating read. It has the right mixture of mature themes and multi-faceted characters. Allende’s writing prowess was also in showcase from the start until the end. Her vivid imagery greatly helped in my appreciation of the story. She was so good at it that even the grotesqueries seemed lyrical. Thankfully, the magical realism aspect of the novel wasn’t as overwhelming as the other works I have previously read. Most importantly, the message at the end was remarkable eked out from the distorted pieces of the family’s past.
Recommended for fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and fellow South American authors, readers who like family sagas and stories about families, readers who are riveted with magical realism and history, those who want challenging reads, and those who want to gain a deeper understanding of a different culture.
Not recommended for readers who are bored by long descriptive paragraphs, readers who get queasy when reading vividly depicted grotesqueries, those who are not into heavy and deep subjects, and those who are looking for light reads.
About the Author
(Photo by IsabelAllende.Com) Isabel Allende Llona was born on August 2, 2942 in Lima, Peru to Francisca Llona Barros and Tomas Allende. Salvador Allende, Chilean President from 1970 to 1973 was a first cousin of her father.
Isabel was a wide reader and was primarily interested in the works of William Shakespeare. From 1959 to 1965, she worked with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in various parts of Europe. In 1967, she became part of the editorial staff of Paula magazine and Mampato, a children’s magazine. She also once worked as a journalist where at one point she interviewed renowned Chilean Poet and Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda. Neruda commended that Isabel should be a novelist due to her wide imagination. In 1973, Isabel’s play El Embajador was played in Santiago.
Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits, evolved from a letter she wrote for her 99-year-old grandfather. It was rejected by numerous publishers until it was finally published in Buenos Aires. The success of her debut work was shortly followed by The Porcelain Fat Lady (1984), Of Love and Shadows (1985), Eva Luna (1987) among others. She also wrote nonfiction books, including Paula (1994), a memoir relating her memories of her childhood in Santiago.
She was married to Miguel Frias from 1962 to 1987, with whom she bore two children. She remarried in 1988 to Atty. Willie Gordon but they eventually separated in 2015.