February 20th, 2009
Having never read any Isabel Allende before, and knowing how beloved (and lovable the author is; she came into the office about a year ago and wowed everyone) her novels are worldwide, I had earmarked The House of Spirits as a book I assumed I would devour. Yet, I found my attention drifting almost from the beginning and had to work really hard to finish all 433 pages of the book. The epic story of a South American family (Chilean, I’m assuming) who cope with decades of excess followed by the political turmoil that threatens to completely destroy them, it’s no wonder the novel is included in the 1001 Books list. It absolutely deserves to be, it’s a book full of the wonder and magic that often accompanies Latin-American fiction (dare I say magic realism, dare I? I know, it’s painful to do so, I do hate those generic descriptions) and chock full of the kind of strong, independent female characters that are ever-so lacking in the list as a whole.
But as I’m coming to find in my old age, I like cynical, swift prose. Maybe cynical is the wrong word, maybe detached would be better. Regardless, I can see the irony in my even writing this because (as the fellows in my writer’s group can attest) I write long, complex and fruity sentences. The longer the better. Annywaaay, Allende’s talent for creating gorgeous and alive worlds, from weaving political and social messages into her prose, and for writing love in ways that rival García Márquez cement her place as one of the greats working today. A story of three generations, the novel begins simply, with the arrival of a very special pet (a dog) under very special circumstances. “Barrabás came to us by sea,” writes Clara, the spiritual child who eventually marries and whose children end up leading incredible lives.
The story spreads out then as complex as the family tree that serves as its roots. But Clara remains its heart, even as she ceases to grace the pages in her human state. And just as every heart needs a body, the big house in the city that she called home centres the novel in a particular place (that’s not to say that a good part of the action doesn’t happen in the Trueba’s country home; it does). Clara’s husband, the formidable and furious Esteban, balances out his wife’s more esoteric characteristics and together they live a long (and for the most part happy in a way) life raising their children, and then their grandchild, Alba.
Time winds its way through the pages at first on the edges as the way of life for the family changes little until the country forces change upon them. Communism rises and then falls. Then a dictatorship comes along and destroys what good might be left (as the narrative makes clear), forcing people to flee and the old ways to be lost forever. Through it all, through the rise and the fall of the Truebas, Allende’s passionate writing never feels forced, but to me, I wonder if it’s all necessary. All of those words, those many, many words. However, I’m going to temper my writing about the book by the fact that my head is foggy, my concentration bogged down by medication and a distinct lack of focus. None of this remains the book’s fault. And not once would my sluggish reaction to the book convince me not to pick up another of Allende’s novels.