It has finally happened: I read my first novel by Allende!^ Luckily I have 5 more of her books waiting on my shelves, as this was a lovely experience that convinced me I’d like to read more of her work.
In essence, Island Beneath the Sea is the story of Zarité – or Tété – who is a slave determined to build a better life for herself and her children. Her greatest wish is her freedom from her master: Toulouse Valmorain.
Valmorain arrives on Saint-Domingue in 1770 on a visit to his father. But instead of returning home in a few weeks, Valmorain takes on the responsibilities of the family plantation upon his father’s death. Soon, Valmorain marries a young woman from Cuba, for which he purchases Tété as a slave. But as her wife slowly becomes psychologically ill, he starts to rely on Tété more and more. [spoiler: and when I say rely I mean in all senses of the word, as he frequently, almost daily, rapes Tété, and she eventually bears him two children, while also taking care of his legitimate child.] Meanwhile, slaves on the island have started fighting for their freedom, and Valmorain struggles to unite the philosophies of his youth and what he feels to be his growing responsibility to be more strict with the slaves on his sugar plantation.
When revolution takes over Saint-Domingue (which will eventually lead to the Republic of Haiti), Zarité and her master try to find safety and flee for New Orleans, with the promise of a better life for Tété. But both still have ties to their former colony. And while Tété tries to build a life of her own, her ties to Valmorain make this difficult.
It is not accidental that while, as I said, Island Beneath the Sea is in essence the story of Zarité, Valmorain’s life takes up such a long part in this book’s premise. For most of the book, we follow Tété’s life through the things that happen in her environment, things that are often outside of her control as they are influenced by decisions made by her master, his bride, or other people who are hierarchically above her. There is lots of space in this book dedicated to figures outside of Zarité and Valmorain, including Violette, a mixed race prostitute who manages to build an independent life, and Dr. Parmentier, who accepts that the medical knowledge of the slaves is more effective and tries to learn and apply it himself.
We hear Zarité’s voice and perspective in small chapters that alternate with the third-person narratives in the novel. In these chapters, some of the forgotten or silenced experiences are revealed, and we learn more about the cruelties, and also the female perspective, through these pages. Things that are conveniently stepped over in the stories centering on Valmorain, for example. Some may find it annoying that we learn little of Zarité’s own thoughts and feelings, directly, but I feel Allende’s approach was incredibly smart: through it, the reader feels just what it is like to be a silenced human in history, instead of someone who is thought capable of their own thoughts and feelings. Meanwhile, in her third person narrative, and in Zarité’s own chapters, she challenges this colonial perspective constantly. And somehow, in the middle of this, she manages to make Zarité the most central character of them all, the one you feel for most, and the one you feel you really come to know.
I received Island Beneath the Sea as a birthday gift two years ago. My friends based their buying it for me on the fact that its plot alludes to the intersection of class, gender, and ethnicity. And boy did they make the right decision on that count, because Allende does a stellar job of showing just how tangled up all characters are in the webs of hierarchical taxonomies. All three boundary markers are foregrounded repeatedly, and yet through great characterisation Allende shows that no one fits into any of the convenient boxes we often think in. Characters constantly struggle with divided loyalties between the individual’s conscience and ideals and his personal practical needs, between rationality and feelings (especially love), between personal alliances and society’s expectations.
What made Island Beneath the Sea stand out to me as a reading experience is that she got so much of the above right. A lot of the problems discussed in last month’s read along of The Tea Lords with regard to colonial characters and the reader’s post-colonial consciousness were resolved in an intriguing manner in this novel. But not only does Allende offer a many-sided perspective on persons involved in slavery and the sugar plantations on Saint-Domingue, she also brings the world to life. There were many moments where I forgot that this was fiction, and I felt this was, or might have been, reality.
Despite all my enthusiasm, there were moments that the narrative lagged a little, and this made some of the chapters a little slow. But overall I cannot help but feel incredibly happy to have read the book, even if the subject is dark, bleak, and depressing. Strange how that works, eh?
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Other Opinions: Books Without Any Pictures, A Bookworm’s World, Lit and Life, Bookworm’s Dinner, Books Like Breathing, Beth Fish Reads, Books and So Many More Books, Rundpinne, Serendipitous Readings, Word by Word, The Picky Girl.
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