Isabel Allende likes to sprinkle the star dust of romantic fantasy over her expansive stories of women’s lives in burning times. This year, the Chilean-born writer turns 80. Inevitably, even fantasies mature. In press, the twilight companion of the eponymous, long-lived heroine is a stalwart Norwegian diplomat named Harald Fiske. In addition to bird watching, Harald loves carpentry and DIY. His true passion is plumbing and “he could happily lie under the kitchen sink for hours”. Dream on, Me.
Nutsman Harald, the answer to autumn prayers, reminds us that the pursuit of aligning desire with topicality drives the galloping action of Allende’s intergenerational sagas. Four decades have passed since her debut The House of Spirits propelled Latin America’s ‘boom’ era fiction from literary cult to a staple of the world’s bestseller lists.
Despite outings to young-adult yarns and family memoirs, Allende frequently returned to the formula of the plot-rich historical chronicle, with intrepid heroines, defining her trademark.
press is another back-to-basics blockbuster. It revisits the Del Valle family: the Chilean dynasty of The House of Spirits, whose family members once again starred Daughter of Fortune (1999) and Portrait in sepia (2000). The centenarian narrator explores the “strange symmetry” of its epic scope, which began during the Spanish flu outbreak that plagued Chile in 1920 and will end in our current pandemic.
Between these bookends, Violeta, daughter of a higher-class tribe losing its fortune in the Great Depression, carves its independent path through a world confused with injustices – against women, against the poor, against indigenous people. She comes to understand the “infinite privileges” that supported her own (though limited) power to choose.
As before, Allende speeds through the modern history of a lively invoked but never-named Chile. Salvador Allende – the author’s second cousin and godfather, and the reformist leader ousted by Pinochet’s coup in 1973 – appears merely as the “President” (or, for the then conservative Violeta, “the arrogant man in the Italian suit”) . The narrator’s gradual political awakening anchors a story drafted as a final will written for her beloved grandson Camilo. Now a radical priest, he is the son of her very grieving daughter Nieves, who was killed by heroin addiction.
Quiet men and volcanic lovers emphasize Violeta’s century: the sturdy Germanic veterinarian Fabian, married in the picturesque, impregnated south of Chile to which the Del Valles flee to their doom; the seductive but crooked adventurer (and Mafia pilot) Julián; the shady but friendly American fixer Roy; and lastly, the Nordic U-bend maestro Harald.
A string of female friends breaking taboos begins with Irish Governor Miss Taylor showing her new paths to freedom. Her own business acumen, as a pioneering developer of prefabricated housing estates, protects her autonomy. Violeta preaches the gospel of freedom through existence.
Allende tells more than she shows. Her groundbreaking rendition of events – both private and public – has pace and paint, captured in Frances Riddle’s delightfully fast-flowing translation. Unfortunately, few episodes slow down enough to bring the creepy cast into focus or thicken their two dimensions into three.
Violeta’s late flowering as a feminist activist, eager to shake off “the weight of wasted time” might have made a stricter, richer novel in itself. In Allende’s tried and tested recipe, however, the pot must continue to boil. While Violeta triumphs as the bold mistress of her fate, her creator looks more like the prisoner of the genre.
press by Isabel Allende, translated by Frances Riddle, Bloomsbury £ 16.99 / Random House Publishing Group $ 28,336 pages
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