A bizarre family history ties in with the tumultuous destiny of an entire country in this epic story by Isabel Allende
It’s true, I read this in Spanish. I have read some Allende before (see my ‘Como Agua para Chocolate’ review) but I was immediately captivated by a world where magic fits in perfectly with culture, politics and the desires of three generations from a same family.
Allende’s debut novel starts with two sisters – Clara and Rosa. The latter is the eldest, with hair brilliant green and eyes as yellow as… a lizard? Despite her odd appearance, she is very beautiful and attracts the attention of a poor yet ambitious miner, Esteban Trueba.
But Clara is the lynchpin of this whole story, for her magical powers allow her to predict an accidental death in the family. Little did she know that her sister would be the one to be accidentally poisoned. Her grief leads her to remain mute for years on end.
Driven almost mad with despair, Rosa’s boyfriend Trueba decides to embark upon the impossible mission of reviving his decrepit homestead of ‘Las Tres Marías’. As he does so he rapes the foreman’s sister, who has a bastard child (also called Esteban Trueba) which he never gives another thought to but whose son proves to be the cause of future misery for the entire family. After raping his way remorselessly through the countryside, he decides to settle down with non other than Clara (who of course saw this coming).
For some reason she doesn’t seem to know or mind what her husband has been up to – and more importantly seems to forgive him for stuffing her pet dog and making him into a rug to put in their honeymoon suite.
As their lives become intertwined and their children grow up, new problems surface – one of which is the grassroots uprising that would eventually transform Chile completely.
Their daughter Blanca falls in love with a peasant boy (Pedro Tercero) from her father’s estate and is forced into marriage with a French aristocrat (Jean de Satigny) when her father finds out. Pedro Tercero, who lost some of his fingers to a shotgun blast from Trueba, went on to be one of the country’s most prominent revolutionaries.
This love story, which surpasses time and distance, allowed Blanca to stay true and return to her parents’ house when she finds out that Satigny has a peculiar fascination for S&M. Heavily pregnant with her daughter Alba, she never reconnected with her father even though she lived in his house and her daughter grew to love him dearly.
Clara’s other sons, Jaime and Nicolás, grow up to be a doctor and a charlatan respectively.
I won’t disclose the end destination of these characters, although in the end it all felt like such a damn waste.
There aren’t any clear heroes nor villains – I remember feeling pity for Trueba until he became irrational, abusive and constantly angry. Clara on the other hand, gifted with so much insight into the universe, was incapable of truly connecting with her sons, and wasn’t willing to leave her clearly abusive husband.
Allende successfully creates this bizarre universe, where three-dimensional characters flit in and out of each others’ lives like an intricate tapestry.
The end result is an exercise in futility. Had her grandfather not raped someone, Alba would not have been raped in turn. Her chilling thought as she nurses her pregnant belly is whether this child would break the cycle or just repeat it.
This review is part of my 1000 books before 30 challenge, in which I attempt to read 1000 books total before that birthday. So far, I’m just over half way through, and have been documenting my progress since January 2015 on this site.