Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

In one of the most important and beloved Latin American works of the twentieth century, Isabel Allende weaves a luminous tapestry of three generations of the Trueba family, revealing both triumphs and tragedies. Here is patriarch Esteban, whose wild desires and political machinations are tempered only by his love for his ethereal wife, Clara, a woman touched by an otherworldly hand. Their daughter, Blanca, whose forbidden love for a man Esteban has deemed unworthy infuriates her father, yet will produce his greatest joy: his granddaughter Alba, a beautiful, ambitious girl who will lead the family and their country into a revolutionary future.

The House of the Spirits is an enthralling saga that spans decades and lives, twining the personal and the political into an epic novel of love, magic, and fate.

Goodreads Description

Where does one begin to write a review of this classic of magic realism? It is a book which, along with One Hundred Years of Solitude, set the benchmark by which other magic realism books are read. There are similarities between the two books - both tell the story of a family over several generations, a story which is set against turbulent times of an unnamed South American country, both include magical elements as a normal part of the families' lives, although the magic in The House of Spirits is mostly limited to the clairvoyant mother Clara.  

Allende's book differs from the Marquez classic in two important ways:
  • House of Spirits has a strong female perspective. Although the patriach Esteban Tueba is a presence throughout most of the book and is in some places the narrator, it is the women - Nivea, Clara, Blanca and Alba -who  are the main characters, and the view we have, including that of Esteban, is through their eyes. The four women are strong characters, living in a male world, and Esteban despite his power and strength is unble to understand or control them. As I have said in previous reviews, magic realism is a useful medium for exploring women's power.
  •  The book's realism. It is not difficult to see that the country in which the book is set is Chile and the military coup with which the book climaxes is that of General Pinochet's overthrow of President Salvador Allende (the author's uncle, who is refered to in the book as the Candidate). Other characters are clearly based on figures of that time - such as the poet Pablo Neruda and the singer Victor Jara. This realism gives the book considerable force, especially as Allende does not spare the reader the harrowing details of Alba's torture or of her uncle's death. And yet even in this section one finds magic - Alba is visited by the spirit of her grandmother, Clara 
Interestingly Allende has said that even the magic is inspired by real life. Clara, who communes with spirits and is able to play Chopin without opening the piano lid, is based on one of her relatives.

One of the strongest impressions I took away from this book was that despite everything there is an optimism about the book's ending. Throughout the book one has felt strongly the unevitability of events - that the blindness of the right-wing Esteban to the liberalism of his family, which one might argue is inherited from his wife's parents, will lead to disaster, that Esteban's casual abuse and rape of peasants will rebound on future generations of the family - and yet at the end Alba breaks the cycle of anger and hatred:

And now I seek my hatred and cannot seem to find it. I feel its flame going out as I come to understand the existence of Colonel Garcia and the others like him...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.


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