Review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Happy Sunday everyone!

We’ve been enjoying some unexpected warmth here in the UK (obviously guaranteed to happen since I’ve had to spend the day inside at work). But I hope you’ve all managed to take advantage of it and that those elsewhere have had an equally fabulous day!

This review is somewhat on the hoof since I’d actually planned to review one of my new reads, ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse. But I had a tweet from a reader asking about my allusion to Isabel Allende in my review of ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ and requesting some Allende recommendations. As we all know, I never pass up an opportunity to write 5 paragraphs where 5 words would suffice and, since Allende’s ‘The House of the Spirits’ is my favourite book of all-time, I felt that this review was well-timed.

‘The House of the Spirits’ was a book that I had introduced to me through an English literature class, that I took while an International Baccalaureate student at high-school in the US (hail to any fellow IB survivors!). I know a lot of people find that studying a book at school serves as a literary turn-off, with extensive analysis basically killing any passion for the chosen works. Honestly, I have typically found the opposite. And, particularly with a work as multi-layered as ‘The House of the Spirits’, dissecting it truly helped to grapple with the purpose and principles behind Allende’s writing.  Stylistically, the book is a fantastic reflection of Allende’s magical realism – taking reality and twisting it into something where the mystical and unnatural are intertwined with the everyday. A family saga of Soprano-like proportions (with similar levels of betrayal and violence, although missing the most important element – pasta), ‘The House of the Spirits’ is one that you will find yourself coming back to time and again.

“At times I feel as if I had lived all this before and that I have already written these very words, but I know it was not I: it was another woman, who kept her notebooks so that one day I could use them. I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get the chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously.”

‘The House of the Spirits’ (set in an unnamed country – but well recognised to be Chile) follows three generations of the Trueba family, opening with the story of the del Valles and their young daughters, Rosa and Clara. Clara is set-apart from the outset through her talent for clairvoyance and her prediction of the death of her sister (also fiancee of the central male character, Esteban Trueba), Rosa. It is after the subsequent marriage of Esteban and Clara that the novel truly gains momentum, following the couple as they move to the remote hacienda, Tres Marias. At Tres Marias, in his capacity as the hacienda’s patron, Esteban’s brutality and cruelty are brought into sharp focus. The novel introduces a number of parallel story lines, diverging most notably after the birth of Esteban and Clara’s three children – their daughter Blanca and twin sons Jaime and Nicolas. Blanca’s affair with the lower-class folk musician Pedro Tercero Garcia, which leads Esteban to a violent confrontation with the boy, results in a break-down of relations between Esteban and Clara (in fact, she never speaks to him again) and the introduction of our third Trueba generation – Blanca’s daughter, Alba. Forming what is essentially the novel’s second part, the family relocate to the city and move into the Trueba’s ‘House on the Corner’. The saga continues with Esteban’s decision to become involved in conservative politics and Alba’s simultaneous love affair with the revolutionary Miguel. Bringing the novel to its climax, the country undergoes a military coup, in which the trials, tragedies, and tribulations that have haunted the Trueba family through its three generations are brought to a head.  We find Esteban forced to confront the violence of his past, question the principles of class superiority and self-interest that have motivated his actions, and realise that there is no escaping the demons that you create.

“She was one of those people who was born for the greatness of a single love, for exaggerated hatred, for apocalyptic vengeance, and for the most sublime forms of heroism but she was unable to shape her fate to the dimensions of her amorous vocation, so it was lived out as something flat and gray trapped between her mother’s sickroom walls, wretched tenements, and the tortured confessions with which this large, opulent, hot-blooded woman made for maternity, abundance, action, and ardor was consuming herself.”

‘The House of the Spirits’ is a story of true complexity (if this wasn’t already highlighted to you by the obscurity of my plot summary). It is a family saga of epic proportions, detailing not only the lives of the three Trueba generations, but doing so in a manner that explores themes of class-conflict and the cycle of violence. It provides a social narrative from personal perspective. Allende’s skill undoubtedly lies in her ability to detail historical reality in a manner that makes the reader invested in its outcome. As a student of politics and human rights, it will come as no surprise that this historical and political dimension is one that appeals to me enormously. While the anonymity that Allende applies to the places and key historical figures means that you could read this novel without appreciating the historical nature of the book, missing this theme would be to miss Allende’s motivation. As the granddaughter of Salvador Allende (the socialist president of Chile deposed by the military coup depicted in the plot), Isabel Allende has written ‘The House of the Spirits’ as a fundamentally political novel. But it is not political in the sense of affiliation, promoting a choice between socialism and liberalism. Rather, the political point is one of sympathy and solidarity. It is a point about what social conflict can do to a country – where a break-down of understanding between people can lead to a situation in which common humanity is forgotten.

If you choose to pick up this book, you will be faced with a story of terror and fear, redemption and reconciliation. You will feel, after finishing the final pages, that you know the Trueba family as well as any other. Because they, like your own family, will make you laugh, think, despair, and grieve. This is a book that I have re-read on numerous occasions, and I find myself constantly surprised by the strength of my reaction to it. Whoever you are and whatever your situation in life when you read this book, I can promise you that it is one you will remember.


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