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September 17, 2011 / Rachel Bednarski

Review: The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy…

The House of the Spirits is a rich and captivating saga spanning four generations of family history and is so epic in its imagery, ideas, and finely drafted characters that it almost defies review. But I shall have a go.

 The novel traces the matriarchal line of the De Valle family, whose story pivots on the ominous precipice of the tumultuous Pinochet era of Chilean history, thus documenting the stories of both a family and a nation. The reader of the novel is taken on a sweeping, turbulent journey through the enchanting innocence of childhood, the injustice of poverty and the corrupting influences of wealth, passionate, enduring love and the terror and savagery of revolutionary war, arriving at the end emotionally exhausted yet hypnotised by the passion of Allende’s prose.

Clairvoyant Clara, with whom the narrative begins and is formed through the relating of her life-long journal entries, is certainly one of the most compelling female protagonists of modern fiction and, along with her daughter Blanca and granddaughter Alba, who takes over the narrative voice upon the death of her grandfather, provides a story replete with autonomous female authority.

Throughout the narrative, instances of intense reality, such as the rape of a peasant girl by Clara’s future husband Esteban Trueba, and the grim and degrading autopsy of Clara’s murdered sister Rosa, as witnessed by the young Clara, are punctuated with the enchantingly surreal imagery of magical realism and episodes of charming humour. One of my particular favourite scenes of the novel sees the pitiable young Esteban visit a prestigious hotel in an attempt to fulfil his lifelong dream of purchasing his very own Viennese coffee:

The day of his first pay-check he had crossed back and forth outside the establishment before getting up the courage to go through the door … He sat down on the edge of a chair and gave order to the waiter with a mere thread of a voice … His Viennese coffee arrived, far more impressive than he had imagined – superb, delicious, and accompanied by three honey biscuits. He stared at it in fascination for a long while until he finally dared to pick up the long handled spoon and, with a sigh of ecstasy, plunge it into the cream … he began to stir the spoon, observing the way the dark liquid of the cup slowly moved into the cream … and suddenly the tip of the spoon knocked against the glass, opening a crack through which the coffee leapt … Horrified, Esteban watched the entire contents of the goblet spill onto his only suit … Pale with frustration, he stood up and walked out of the Hotel Frances fifty centavos poorer, leaving a trail of Viennese coffee on the springy carpet. 

The House of the Spirits is abounding in magic, fantasy, and charm which co-exist to great effect with the reality of the savage backdrop of war, suggesting the over-arching significance of spirituality in times of suffering. This was my first encounter with magical realism and, as I am now eagerly anticipating being able to start Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, it seems it has marked the beginning of a love affair between myself and the genre. Congratulations, Allende, I do believe you have yourself a masterpiece.

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