Discussion location: The Shakespeare on Summer Row (why do Nicholson’s pubs have two Shakespeares in Birmingham?)

Chosen by: Rachael

Reason for choice: Found it while travelling in Australia with a four-leaf clover inside it.   Bought every copy since! Didn’t start seeing the country for days just to read it.

Trivia: Allende only commences writing a novel on January 8th

Review:

Isabel Allende’s 1982 debut The House of The Spirits was initially rejected by publishers, yet became an instant bestseller when published.  Similarly, the book was Marmite for us; with a record number of members who failed to finish reading the book, some who disliked it so much they didn’t want to discuss it, some who really enjoyed it, and the Chair’s favourite book ever. Unsurprisingly, it received the widest range of scores of any book we’ve reviewed (3.5 – 10!) For that reason, this review won’t follow the usual liked vs. disliked discussion, as the aspects liked by some were equally disliked by others.  Rather, we will discuss the contested topics.

Too epic or not too epic?

With an unarguably epic narrative spanning a lengthy time frame and a huge range of characters, covering four generations and the political conflict in Chile; the question is whether ‘epic’ is necessarily a good thing here. In some ways, it provides the opportunity to delve into a political conflict from the perspective of several characters involved, and to play out ‘the sins of the fathers’ concept across the multiple generations of a family.  On the other hand, covering such a vast range of content in one novel can often be at the expense of depth and style.

Substance over style?

Another contentious issue, style is (of course) a highly subjective matter.  For some, it’s fairly pleasurable to drift along in an imaginary world with no real idea if you are heading towards a conclusion. To be introduced to characters and their brief history with no idea if you will ever meet them again. For others, it was plain irritating – with too much information packed into each sentence and about each character, overly descriptive and heavy-going on the content, it was reminiscent of a Dickens (every breath from birth ‘till death) paid-per-page job. Not to mention the unarguably annoying prescient narration of “little did she know she would never see him again”.  To authors everywhere – the reader does not want to know what will happen later in the book.  It ruins the surprise.

Cast vs. character

With no particular protagonist, the novel features the main stories of four generations of characters; essentially, their story was one story. While it is somewhat realistic for the narrative of a family that some characters enter the novel only to fade out while others remain through the majority, there was an improbable number of either ‘mad, bad, or hopeless’ characters. Indeed, so many miserable stories across one family seemed entirely implausible, even in a magical realism novel. Having said that, of the characters that the novel focused on more than others, the female line was frustrating, allowing themselves to be ruled and abused by men.  For a female author, it is disappointing that Allende’s female characters were so weak, with only Alba reconciling the generations of limp women in her outrageous bravery.

Esteban. 

Having mentioned the weak women of the novel, it seems an apt time to mention Esteban. The novel’s main male character, the initial fiancée of Rosa the beautiful, and later husband of Clara, Esteban is also the novel’s co-narrator. An entrepreneurial youth, Esteban then becomes unjustifiably vile, with his persistent abuse of women, uncomfortable rapes that are simply brushed over by Allende, and his general brutality that sometimes makes difficult reading. Despite this, Allende manages to scrape back some sympathy for Esteban in his reflective old age, and his love for his granddaughter Alba.

Time and Place

With such a wide time span, it is difficult for readers to place the novel in terms of era and country.  Indeed, the novel presupposes some reader knowledge as the socioeconomic situation is explained deeply, but only in the aspects that family members become involved in, without depicting what was happening in the wider context of the country.  The social situation also draws comparisons to Garcia Marquez’s 1967 magic realism classic 100 Years of Solitude, which spans a similar time frame and also depicts several generations of a family.  Here is not the time or the place to discuss such comparisons; suffice to say that Allende was obviously at the least inspired by Marquez.

Overall, this is a wide-ranging, all-encompassing novel that won’t be everbody’s cup of tea.

Overall rating: 6/10

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