My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars
Isabel Allende is a passionate, confident storyteller. To read her sweeping historical fiction is to surrender to high drama and romance.
I first knew Allende as a writer of magical realism with works like Eva Luna and Of Love and Shadows, in which she intertwines contemporary political drama with strokes of the surreal and mystical. But her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, published in 1982 and the epics which followed, such as Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and Zorro reveal a writer rooted deeply in the past and enamored of rich, complex, colorful narratives.
In Island Beneath The Sea, Allende wraps her considerable skill around the sugar plantations of Saint Domingue, an island in the Caribbean. She opens the story in 1770 with the arrival of Toulouse Valmorain, a young minor noble who is charged with resurrecting the plantation his dying father has left to rot. Paralleling the third-person narrative of Valmorain’s misadventures, the death of Saint-Domingue and the birth of the first black republic, Haiti, is the first-person stream of Zarité, a slave. We witness the horrors of slavery from a position removed, seeing all angles as plantation owners fight to hold onto their wealth and slaves fall by the thousands. We are also invited into the heart of woman who fights for her soul despite the inhumanity that touches every aspect of her life.
The action is brutal and graphic; Allende spares no detail in describing the incomprehensible cruelty suffered by slaves. We read scene after scene of torture, from a sea voyage in chains from Africa to the Caribbean – survived by those who escape being fed to sharks or wasting away from starvation or disease – to the living hell of sugarcane fields where the slaves are worked literally to death.
It would seem that the author intended to give the greatest weight to the story of Zarité. Even the book’s synopsis asserts that this story is about “a mulatta woman determined to take control of her own destiny.” But the initial focus of Island Beneath The Sea is the political and sociological conditions of Saint-Domingue which lead to a slave revolution and the fight for an independent black nation. Zarité’s voice seems like a whisper, an impression reinforced by the italics used for the chapters of her narrative. Allende excels at creating strong female characters and there are many in this story: the gorgeous concubine Violette, the shrieking harridan Hortense, the formidable healer Tante Rose. But Zarité’s story is cast in the shadow of Haiti’s violent birth and the immorality of the colonials.
Then the story moves from the newly formed nation of Hait to Louisiana and the center of French culture in the New World, New Orleans. It is here that the story shifts from historical epic to Gothic drama. The families transplanted from the Caribbean struggle to find new places in a society where the rules change with its citizens’ fortunes. This shift is frustrating. We leave behind themes of freedom and political determination and are dropped instead into several different romantic subplots. Even as I was entertained, I felt intellectually cheated by the discarding of so vital a story.
It is impossible not to be swept away by Allende’s vivid detail and breathtaking scope of history; in fact, so much scene-setting and character description can steam-roll the reader. The first half is entrancing, the second half is entertaining. Although Allende’s story isn’t always convincing, her passion is.