Thursday 18 July 2013

Island Beneath the Sea

I have been listening to 'Island Beneath the Sea' by Isabel Allende for the last several weeks now; it is very long, over 17 hours of audio that I am sure I would not have stuck with in print. I have not read anything by Allende before and having trawled through a few reviews I find that this book was less than well received, not having the magical realist type themes of some of her earlier novels. It is a sprawling saga of slavery, revolt and one woman's pursuit of freedom. It jumps from narrator to narrator, and this I felt was its strength as I found all of them to be variously compelling and convincing. Set in the late 18th century the story follows the relationship between Valmorain, a frenchman who arrives on Saint-Dominigue (now Haiti) to take over his father's sugar plantation, and a young slave Zarité who is acquired to take care of his new wife, all set against the history of the island at a very turbulent time. There is nothing romantic in it; he owns her, rapes her, abuses her and gives away her first child. She, while accepting her lot in life, develops a strange intense loyalty to her mistress who sinks into mental illness and the drugged stupor imposed by the doctor to ensure the preservation of a final ditch pregnancy. This same loyalty is then transferred to the son who grows up alongside her own daughter Rosette. The tale follows the drama of the slave uprisings that freed the colony from French rule and abolished slavery. To ensure the safety of the children Zarité alerts her master to the coming attack and enables their escape from certain death, and earns as reward a paper that promises her emancipation. Their life takes them to New Orleans; Valmorain struggles with an equally strange sense of loyalty to her, when a new wife brings trouble and conflict into their slightly unorthodox domestic arrangements. Everything about the book was fascinating and well researched. The historical detail was well integrated into the story, they live through events and we see the effects of the social upheaval from both sides. The convoluted social strata was dwelt on at length; the way all the possible combinations of races related to each other, who looked down on who, who had this right or freedom, the subtleties of skin tone denoting everything about how life could be lived. Although he never acknowledges her as an equal, nor acknowledges what he owes her I did feel that over the course of the story Valmorain does have a subtle shift in the way he views Zarité, and the reader, like Zarité herself, cannot help but feel pity for how he ends up. The novel sweeps up all sorts of things in it's wake, from the influence of Catholicism and Voodoo, to Napoleon and the war in Europe, to the growing political divide in America. It is unflinching in its portrayal of slavery but the multiple narratives allows the reader to see the pains and pleasures of different life experiences, showing us the social and political situation from all perspectives and gives us a glimpse into the world of each one. History, drama and a enthralling human story, what more do you need; I will certainly come back to her writing again.


  1. I have, strangely, resisted reading Allende -- putting off a good thing??

  2. She is one of those writers that is very widely respected, she has been on my list of writers-to-read for a long time, and yet I read some really critical reviews of this book. Maybe one of her earlier ones would be a better first try.


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