Friday, 10 April 2009

The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende

Read: April 2008

If there is a better storyteller than Isabel Allende anywhere in the world then I cannot wait to discover them. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez she has the ability to juggle multiple characters and plots with consummate ease, plucking them from the air like brightly coloured birds to weave in and out of her rich tapestry. Like Rohinton Mistry she is able to condense great swathes of national history into the lives of a few characters who are simultaneously much greater, and far smaller than the country as a whole. And like Haruki Murakami, she uses magical realist twists to develop greater emotional intimacy with the characters and imbue the small everyday events of life with grand majesty. Her prose is engrossing, concise and readable. Her novels read like oral legends: they have that clarity of expression, that tried and tested rhythm of a story that has been enjoyed by generation after generation for hundreds of years.

The House of Spirits is, in short, exceptional. It tells the story of the “house on the corner,” the family residence of Esteban Trueba, under whose roof more than half a century of Chilean history is played out. Under that roof four generations of the Trueba family live their lives: weddings, marriages, fortunes made and lost, tragedies and success stories, intrigue, controversy, fallings out, violence, growth, acceptance, transformation. The plot is crammed with action, intrigue and revolution, all in less than 500 pages.

Often when a book is short on dialogue, with 50 page opening chapters of dense long paragraphs it can be difficult to get into. But not The House of Spirits. Within 5 pages I was engrossed in the lives of these fantastic characters: Esteban Trueba who goes off to make his fortune in the gold mines so that he can return and marry Rosa, a beautiful mermaid-like being who walks through life in a daydream; her introverted psychic sister Clara whose big dog Barrabas is her only friend; their eccentric uncle Marcos with a whole trunk full of interesting and exotic books, Esteban’s sister Ferula who sacrifices her life to care for their sick mother. Within this chapter there is an accidental death, marriage, cruel persecution, grand evening soirĂ©e’s and poverty stricken homelessness, grief and jubilation and a momentous first flight in an aeroplane. The House Of Spirits covers the whole spectrum of emotion and action. Its plot flows sweetly from one adventure to another, like a grand river tour through all the worlds most magnificent cities in history one after the other, on and on forever.

Every character is drawn with a loving, human touch, they are all capable of moments of pathetic petulance and the grandest gestures of generosity, and they constantly evolve and surprise us. To achieve this evolution over the course of their lives is a supreme achievement, I cannot laud Allende’s composition highly enough.

And despite tackling emotive, controversial issues, Allende retains complete control of her characters and plot. No political ideal is ever supported in favour of another, no character uniformly good or homogeneously evil. We feel as much for Esteban Trueba when the Socialist revolution confiscates his property and workers as we do for those self same workers when they lose their revolution in the military coup. Even while we mourn the passing of the old order, we celebrate the excitement and ideas of the socialists. And even the military junta has its benefits – clean streets, beautiful parks, easy money making – alongside its less savoury acts of persecution, torture and habitual murder. And the characters are the same: we are never left wholly despising the philandering Trueba who rapes his peasants and has a temper that threatens to destroy everything in his vicinity, just as even the mystical Clara or the willing sufferer Ferula have their human failings as well.

And I absolutely love the delicate narrative stance. It is such an achievement to be able to transform from third to first person seamlessly, without disrupting the flow, to have the impression that one character is the narrator throughout when it turns out at the end it is someone else altogether. There are so many clever aspects of this novel but their brilliantly accomplished realisation makes them invisible. At no time do they intrude upon a novel which is a great epic story, well written and thoroughly intriguing. I love it. You should read it now.

9 out of 10

No comments: