¡ Hóla everyone !
When I first started to have a look a Chilean literature, it appeared very quickly that The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, was a key piece : besides, it has been mentioned among the very first suggestions I got on Facebook (thanks Lola !). By carrying it around with me, I realized that this reputation turned out to be absolutely true. Some of my friends recognised it, and even my mum told be that she had liked it when she’d read it some years ago – that is to say how much I was expecting from this read ! And I can say that I haven’t been disappointed : I really enjoyed this contemporary “classic”, and I am glad to have discovered it.
It is hard to sum up this book’s extreme density : from the significant themes to the extraordinary characters, everything is in there. We follow the story of the Trueba family (or may I say dynasty ?) on three generations (mostly feminine but with strong and captivating male characters as well) – from the mysterious Clara to Blanca, the passionate one, and to the dynamic Alba. These three women bearing in them the destiny of their family have their strengths and their weaknesses, and sketch intense portraits of XXth century’s women in South America (the book takes place somewhere very – very – similar to Chile but never names the country). Clara, with her psychic abilities, is a persona I adored. She can telekinetically move objects, guess the future or communicate with spirits, and she moves in life and in the story like she would in a dream. She is an ethereal matriarch, at the same time reassuring and absent, knowing everything, always one step ahead from the rest of the world. Clara is one of the main causes of the magical atmosphere that reigns in this story : the boundaries between living and dead, as well as those between real and imaginary are here fine, fragile, blurred. The text is full of silences and full of meekness, somehow far from us… and though ruthlessly rooted in reality. Each of the Trueba women is a step further from dream, a step closer to concrete, material world. Blanca, as the “second stage” of this evolution, goes through a lot of poignant disillusionments : she finds out that the world doesn’t comply to its inhabitants’ wishes, works to forget, and engages herself on a crooked way by letting herself being carried by an ardent love story. Alba at last, the younger and most modern one, is an idealist but more than that she is deeply alive, committed to her convictions and engaged in her time’s troubles. The three of them stand the test of time, surviving against all odds, witnessing with a varying degree of awareness of the changes around them.
The narration of this text is also most interesting : the novel is indeed presented as an a posteriori account, allowing the author to tease us about the future of the protagonists. The whole piece is more or less divided in three “parts”, one for each feminine Trueba character, and as we advance in the reading process we are more and more immersed in this global familial panorama (the transition between the three subjects is so smooth that it takes some time to realize that we have moved from the part centred on Clara to that of Blanca for example). Moreover, the text is partly credited to the hand of Clara’s husband, Esteban. I found this masculine insight extremely relevant, because it offers a totally different point of view on the story. Misogynist, proud, right-winged but without any political ethics, violent and convinced of his own superiority, Esteban has everything to be regarded as despicable by the reader (and he is !). And however, in this book as in “real” life, nothing is only all good or all bad : through the reading and thanks to his internal perspective, we get to learn about the ideas and motivations of everyone. Esteban himself, haunted by his first love and shaped by a hard life, is lost in a world that he doesn’t understand anymore, facing puzzlement in his own house – “the large house at the corner”. Within this place, the occupants’ judgments oppose, the arguments and feelings confront ; more than simply engaging the reader to take party for one or another, this unferling wave of conflicts and twists finally comes down to leave only a profound sense of waste in regard to such an amount of incomprehension and frustration. The book delivers a lot of emotions, which stand out as complex and exacerbated (for example the motherly tenderness of Ferula, turning into obsessional love) ; as a reader, we can jump from outrage to empathy to astonishment, sometimes we laugh and sometimes we want to cry in anger or pity.
For me, The House of the Spirits has been a read filled with contrasts. Contrast between two worlds that keep colliding : on the one hand the rich, on the other the poor, with constant back and forth moves proving how easy it is to fall from one to the other. Contrast between the landscapes, between the bleak and rural countryside, and the seething capital city. Contrast between the personalities, political opinions and desires of the characters. Contrast also between Nicolas and Jaime, Blanca’s twin brothers who are though incomparable (#teamjaime), between the violence of reality and the sweetness of Clara’s daydreaming aura, and between life and death.
I could write about this piece for a long time – I feel like I am forgetting so many things, so many aspects of this novel that I haven’t evoked yet (women’s empowerment struggle, engagement against dictatorship, Jaime’s humanism, or even the ethnological dimension of the book, very precisely showing us a period and an area in complete mutation…) – but still I’d like to stop this review here, lest I am going to spoil the discovery of future readers. I loved this book, and this story. Isabel Allende’s storytelling skills are a hundred times proven here : her writing style, remarkable of clarity and realism, succeeds at creating pictures and feelings that transcend the paper, and wrap us in a bewitching atmosphere. The House of the Spirits is a story that strikes the reader’s soul, and makes us want to read more, to learn more. Its characters are among those we will always remember : they leave a multicoloured and diffuse memory, as well as they induce thinking by their differences and reactions. I think you’ll have understood that this has been a genuine book crush. I really recommend you to read it : don’t be discouraged by its thickness (both physical and thematic) and give it a try, I promise you won’t regret it !
> The next review will be about Mina no kôshin, by Yôko Ogawa.