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Thursday, 4 August 2011

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits is one of those books that always ends up in countdowns like the "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die!", much like Lolita, so it has quite a reputation to live up to. This is made especially interesting, for me at least, when I find out in the author biography that this was Isabel Allende's début novel; I mean, it really has to be special if a novice author is the centre of all that attention. So, without any further rambling on my part, here's my review.

Currently stuck in a bit of a mental rut at the moment, so this will probably be a very simple and straight-forward sort of review. So, first of all is the plot. To be honest, there isn't much of a "plot" as such, seeing as The House of the Spirits is essentially a character study of the members of three generations of the Trueba family, who live somewhere in Latin America; to be honest I'm not entirely sure where, as it's never directly stated, combined with the fact that my geography is absolutely abysmal and thus would be unlikely to know anyway. In any case, the novel tracks the various immediate family members through financial highs and lows, love affairs both fulfilled and unrequited and through monumental shifts in government, from conservative to socialist and so on. In terms of plot, this book reminds me very strongly of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, due to various similarities such as the focus on the family saga, the strong political context, the largely pessimistic outlook on the consequences of love and the atmosphere of spirituality permeating the entire narrative. So, to be honest, there were several moments where I was seriously reminded of other Latin American magical realism books that I've read over recent years, but I didn't really mind too much as it gave the proceedings a nicely familiar feel to it despite this being my first time reading this book.
There are so many characters that turn up in this novel that I don't think I'll really get to talk about them all that much unless I allow this review to last forever. I will limit it to the more important members of the family, much as it pains me. One of the most important characters is undoubtedly the family's patriarch, Esteban Trueba; a man who has decided that his family would have all the things that he lacked growing up, making himself a fortune in order to do that. Unfortunately, having worked his way to prosperity, he allows his temper and his unwillingness to change to emotionally isolate him from the majority of his family; he's a character who is easy to sympathise with, but not easy to like due to his extremely conservative, survival-of-the-fittest mentality. His wife, Clara is easily the lynch-pin of the family, an eccentric woman who just about keeps her family from exploding into out-and-out conflict by imposing a base level of politeness for them to adopt. She's also psychic, which I'm just coming to expect from Latin American novels now. There's Blanca, Esteban and Clara's daughter, who causes the main source of conflict when she falls in love with a peasant on her father's farm, Pedro Tercero Garcia; unfortunately she is discovered mid-coitus by a colleague of her father's, leaving her pregnant and firmly in Esteban's contempt. Blanca has younger twin brothers as well, Nicolas and Jaime. Nicolas is a bit of a waste of space really; I rejoiced when Esteban made him move to the USA. Jaime, on the other hand, has to be my favourite character from The House of the Spirits. He's a very shy, studious man who dedicates his life to helping others through his occupation as a doctor; unfortunately this dedication leads not only to a despair based on his inability to save everyone in his care but also to a near total lack of social skills that prevents him from confessing his feelings to anyone. The other main character that I'd be good to mention is that of Alba, Blanca and Pedro Tercero's daughter. She takes up a great deal of focus in the last third or so of the story, as she is used mainly as a contrast between the more openly expressed desire for social equality compared to her grandfather's firm belief in the system that has always been there; this is especially evident in her choice of lover, Miguel, a guerilla who believes that change must come through violent revolution. Overall, I found the characters nicely varied and the large cast turned out to be a real blessing: while there were characters I didn't find that interesting or likeable, such as Nicolas, there were also characters that I could really sympathise with instead, like Jaime.

So overall? I really enjoyed it. There was a beautifully melancholy tone throughout and the character interactions are some of the best that I've seen in a while. I didn't absolutely love it, but it's very solid writing and a phenomenal first effort from Allende. 4/5

Next review: Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Signing off,

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