I have quite a number of books by Isabel Allende on my shelves. Most of them unread. I do not know why, but I always feel a little hesitant to pick them up. Am I intimidated? Or am I scared I might not like them as much as I expect to? I think it is a mixture of the two. When I read Island Beneath the Sea, the first and only book by Allende I had read until last month, I vowed I would get over those feelings and finally dedicate some reading time to her work. Because I did really like the story and the themes it explored. Despite this vow, it took me quite some time to pick up another one of her novels, this time her classic The House of the Spirits.
It was Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe event that finally gave me the push to give this one a go. I never even thought of Allende as an author nor about this title as a book that might count towards a challenge to read more diversely, but yay for her including it on a list of suggested titles and for me realising I actually owned a few of her suggestions and that now might be the time to start reading them. Sadly, I only made it through one book due to the time restraints of giving birth and taking care of a small baby, but at least I read one book, right?
The House of the Spirits is a family saga situated in an unnamed South American country which can easily be identified as Chile. The story concentrates on three generations, but mostly on the first and third in the form of Clara and Esteban Trueba, and Alba Trueba. Intermixed with the narrative of the personal lives of the Trueba family are elements of the supernatural (the magical realism component of Allende’s work), the social and the political. It also carries an undertone of gender criticism, though not always as explicit as I might have liked as I will explain below.
There is something about Allende’s style that appeals to me. I flew through the first 100 pages of this book. I found her prose very convincing and I immediately felt part of the world of the Trueba family. I had fully expected to continue reading the other 400 pages in the same vein. However, something made me slow down. And while, in the end I continue to feel that Allende’s worldbuilding and narrative is very convincing and I can still vividly imagine her characters a week after finishing the book, I cannot say I feel head over heels in love with this book, as I expected from those first pages.
The main thing holding me back from a declaration of outright love is the gender angle that I briefly mentioned before. I should add that this is more a matter of personal taste than me finding fault with Allende’s argument or gender perspective in the book.
Allende definitely argues for a less normative and patriarchical society in her book, which I think is illustrated by the fact that the book begins with Clara and not with Esteban, and that it is the women who take the lead even if Esteban is the narrator for much of the story. Yet, because Esteban is the narrator for part of the story, I felt uncomfortable with some scenes. It is an accomplishment that Allende manages to write from the perspective of many characters and not apologize for any of their feelings or deeds, and part of me appreciates that. Another part of me couldn’t help but feel incredibly uncomfortable with the many rape scenes and Esteban’s overbearing and masculine-centred behaviour. It just.. made my skin crawl at times. Particularly because Esteban’s character didn’t even bat an eye. True, Allende makes up for these scenes by drawing such wonderful women in Clara, Blanca and Alba, but I could never quite shake this discomfort at the character of Esteban, or maybe the masculine society as a whole. Is Allende’s protrayal of this realistic? Possibly, or even probably. Does she hint at acknowledging the discomfort this portrayal might make the reader feel? I think so. She also hints at disagreement with it. And yet… part of me wishes for more, or perhaps a little less of the brutality, or perhaps simply less details. Or maybe to have Clara do more than hint at her knowledge of Esteban’s former behaviour, or be more outspoken about it from the outset. I don’t know.
In short, I both admire and hesitate over Allende’s ability to draw such a realistic brutal history that is cushioned and mirrored in the personal entanglements of a family, but I also shrank back from the sharp edges of it. Are they there by necessity? Very probably. And therefore I feel I have no right to complain. But these sharp edges.. they made me uncomfortable nonetheless.
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A More Diverse Universe is a blogging event hosted by Aarti over at her blog BookLust in a effort to promote reading diversely, providing insight into the fact that reading diversily does not require you to change your taste in reading, only to search more actively for diverse books within your favourite genre(s). For more information and other reviews, please visit this dedicated post on Aarti’s blog or follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on twitter.