Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferre

Finalist for the National Book Award: A breathtaking saga from Puerto Rico’s greatest literary voice

This riveting, multigenerational epic tells the story of two families and the history of Puerto Rico through the eyes of Isabel Monfort and her husband, Quintín Mendizabal. Isabel attempts to immortalize their now-united families—and, by extension, their homeland—in a book. The tale that unfolds in her writing has layers upon layers, exploring the nature of love, marriage, family, and Puerto Rico itself.

Weaving the intimate with the expansive on a teeming stage, Ferré crafts a revealing self-portrait of a man and a woman, two fiercely independent people searching for meaning and identity. As Isabel declares: “Nothing is true, nothing is false, everything is the color of the glass you’re looking through.”

A book about freeing oneself from societal and cultural constraints, The House on the Lagoon also grapples with bigger issues of life, death, poverty, and racism. Mythological in its breadth and scope, this is a masterwork from an extraordinary storyteller. 

Publishers description

This book will remind magic realist fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits. Not because of the prevalence of magic realism, but because of the themes. As in
One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book starts with the creation of a place, in this case a house (The House on the Lagoon), and follows the story of that house through its three incarnations and several generations of inhabitants. As in The House of the Spirits we follow three generations of a Hispanic well-to-do family through periods of political upheaval, with the third generation taking a radical political stance against a conservative father. 

Despite these similarities The House on the Lagoon approaches the subject matter from a very different angle.  It is worth repeating what the narrator Isabel says to her husband Quintin: Nothing is true, nothing is false, everything is the color of the glass you’re looking through. That is the key to this book. The book is about a "novel", which Isabel is writing, which recounts the story of her marriage and the history of their two families. The House on the Lagoon is mainly made up of sections of that "novel" interspersed by short sections from Quintin's perspective. The sections by Isabel are written in the first person, Quintin's in the third, so the reader tends to have more sympathy with Isabel's account. Quintin claims to be a historian and is shocked and threatened as he reads more and more of Isabel's account, which he regards as full of falsehoods.  As a reader I didn't feel I ever really got to the "truth" of the story. But that surely is the point. 

And what about the magic realism? As you might expect given the ambiguity of the novel, one can't really be sure of the magic in the book. It is possible to read everything as realistic. Certainly the central characters don't do anything magical. But there is magic around the edges, just out of focus so to speak. It is the magic of the black servants and their beliefs. In particular it is in the character of the servant Petra, who controls the other servants (they are all related to her) and who Quintin regards as manipulating Isabel and other family members: Petra had entrenched herself in the cellar like a monstrous spider, and from there spun a web of malicious rumor which eventually enveloped the whole family. Petra uses traditional medicines and venerates the old gods and both Isabel and Quintin believe that she has some witch-like powers, but they are white outsiders and as we are seeing the story through their eyes we don't get close to Petra's magic. 

This book is skillfully written, winding the two strands of narration, and presenting not just a story of a family but also the story of Puerto Rico.  At times I found the style a bit dry, particularly at the beginning, as the writer tells rather than shows the historical setting. But as the book progressed, particularly as we moved away from the story of Quintin's and Isabel's parents to that of the couple themselves, I found myself more and more involved. 

I recommend this fascinating book, which leaves you thinking.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

1 comment:

Kate Fereday Eshete said...

Thanks for this review, Zoe. Elsewhere you talk about the importance of ambiguity in MR novels. Did you detect no ambiguity in this novel? Is its absence a weakness?