Isabel Allende’s ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’

Isabel Allende – ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’, Ballantine Books, 2020

The first Allende book I read was ‘Daughter of Fortune’ and it left me with great admiration of the South American born author.  After reading the ‘Daughter’ I followed up with its sequel ‘Portrait in Sepia’ and then went on to read ‘Island Beneath the Sea’ and ‘Maya’s Notebook’.  All of them were well worth a read, although my favorite remains ‘Daughter of Fortune’.  If you haven’t discovered Allende, she’s an author I would recommend, not least for the unique perspective she brings to situations and the views held by her characters, obviously influenced by her Spanish/Latin American roots.

If you’re already a fan of Isabel Allende, you will no doubt be curious about her latest book ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’.  The title is an allusion to Chile and the story is drawn from the histories of both that country and Spain.  Completely overshadowed by WWII, the Spanish civil war of the 1930’s was a precursor to the Nazi onslaught of Europe.  When a democratic system moved Spain towards socialism, there was an organized insurrection led by Generalissimo Franco.  Franco, with the help of the Nazis, ruthlessly exterminated his opposition while the international community sat watching the carnage and refused to act.  This international indifference was not lost on Hitler, who used the Spanish civil war to test his weapons and confirm his belief that the western powers would do nothing to prevent his relentless program of military expansion.

Allenda starts her story in the dying days of the civil war.  Her protagonists are an unusual couple, one attracted to medicine and the other an unwed girl pregnant by his brother.  Forced together by circumstance, they are both part of the doomed republican cause.  With thousands of others they flee to France after the final collapse of the republican cause.  In a response that mirrors the treatment of Jews fleeing the Nazis holocaust less than a decade later, the Spanish refugees are either refused entry or treated badly.  Those who are turned away face extermination from the vengeful Franco, and those who make it into France are incarcerated in concentration camps and left to starve. 

Across the globe, Chile is having its first fling with socialism.  Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, is attached to the country’s embassy in France.  He promotes a scheme to rescue a shipload of Spanish refugees and bring them to Chile.  The young protagonists arrange a marriage of convenience to qualify for entry onto the ship.  Once in Chile their paths cross with one of the grand families of Chile, one of the twenty or so families in the country that own about 90% of the country’s assets.  As the two families lives intertwine, the couple carve a new and productive life in Chile.

The couple is well established in their adopted country when Chile begins its second experiment with socialism by electing Salvadore Allende as President.  Allende begins a program to nationalize the country’s mining and banking sectors.  The powerful families, with the help of the United States, push the country into a manufactured fiscal crisis that provides the excuse for a bloody military coup, led by Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet.  The parallels between Pinochet and Franco become obvious as a brutal campaign of socialist ‘cleansing’ begins.  The protagonist, by then a respected surgeon, is one of many who disappear into a Chilean gulag.

With all this fascinating historical drama as a background, I was eagerly anticipating a compelling story by a great storyteller.  I was disappointed.  It felt to me like the novel needed one more draft.  I was surprised at the amount of authorial ‘telling’ compared to the ‘showing’ that one expects in modern novels.  As a reader who enjoys older and classic literature, I’m not adverse to the ‘omniscient author’ as a point of view (POV).  However, I can also appreciate the trend of modern novels where a story is revealed through a character’s point of view, rather than the author as an all-knowing dispenser of information.  The thoughts, dialogue and actions in the modern POV are more likely to build greater empathy for the character(s).  In this instance, I thought there was an over abundance of the author’s POV and, for me, it detracted from character development.  The end result is that I didn’t make enough of a connection with the protagonists to make, for me, a truly satisfying story, one where I felt a strong investment in their wellbeing.  The characters face tremendous trials and tribulations, but it’s harder to empathize with their plight the way the novel is written.  With material like this to work with, the result should have been a novel of exceptional power and drama.

As it stands, there are still wonderful things in this novel and it has its rewards for readers and fans of Ms. Allenda, but I can’t help thinking it could have been a spectacular book with another draft where her characters took greater control of the story.  It’s worth a read, but with reservations.

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