‘The House of Spirits’ by Isabel Allende
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting going into Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits. I’d read her Daughter of Fortune and her retelling of Zorro many years ago, before I’d ever heard of “magical realism” or started enjoying Spanish or Latin American books every summer. I remember them both vaguely (and positively!) and I always had it in mind to read The House of Spirits. It was supposed to be her greatest work and so, when I found it at used book store earlier this summer, the timing seemed propitious.
Having now read it, I mostly felt like The House of Spirits was two novels jammed together as one. They flow so nicely that you almost don’t notice you’ve wandered from one to the other until you — seemingly suddenly — find yourself in a Chilean concentration camp for women and wonder what happened to the puckish and magical goings-on that started the book.
But let me go back to the beginning — The House of Spirits is basically a generational family drama telling the story of the Trueba family through its rise, fall, and potential redemption. The first chunk of book feels like a pleasant combination of Edward Rutherfurd and Gabriel García Márquez as Allende leads the way through generations and time with a hefty dose of the supernatural.
However, as the book progresses, the timelessness of the story erodes away. Although places and dates are never mentioned, the increasingly corrupt and brutal political atmosphere in an unnamed-mid-century Chile eventually takes over the narrative. Magic is banished, reality defeats even the proudest member of the family, and you’re forced to endure practically every thing and person crumble, die, or be tortured.
This sounds awful, I grant you, but Allende’s writing is anything but brutal. Her style throughout, when dealing with an enchanted three-legged table or state-sanctioned rape, is remarkably consistent and even-handed. She is calm, factual, and flies above the story, almost as ethereal as one of her protagonists, Clara.
So while The House of Spirits was not what I would call an enjoyable read, it felt like an important one. I’ve never read anything about Chile, like alone its mid-century political upheavals, and while my previous adventures in Latin American literature didn’t touch at all on modern struggles, Allende faces them head-on, bringing her readers along for the sometimes shocking and demoralizing ride.
The House of Spirits was by no means a light read, but I appreciated what Allende was doing and was glad to have read it. People often speak of good books as transporting you to another place. Good books can do that, but the even better ones take you to a foreign land, challenge you, and deposit you on the other side, for better or worse, knowing more. The House of Spirits is that kind of book. You may not necessarily enjoy the ride, but you’ll be glad you took it.