Friday, October 1, 2010


Written in 1985 by relative of an assassinated Chilean president, Isabel Allende's The House of The Spirits continues to weather challenges against it because of the inclusion of certain language and sex. Fortunately this work of magical realism endures and we get to peek into the lives of the very unusual Trueba family as their story unfolds against the backdrop of a politically turbulent, yet unnamed country.

The original review:
Starred Review */ A strong, absorbing Chilean family chronicle, plushly upholstered--with mystical undercurrents (psychic phenomena) and a measure of leftward political commitment. (The author is a cousin of ex-Pres. Salvador Allende, an ill-fated socialist.) The Truebas are estate-owners of independent wealth, of whom only one--the eventual patriarch, Esteban--fully plays his class role. Headstrong and conservative, Esteban is a piggish youth, mistreating his peons and casually raping his girl servants . . . until he falls under the spell of young Clara DelValle: mute for nine years after witnessing the gruesome autopsy of her equally delicate sister, Clara is capable of telekinesis and soothsaying; she's a pure creature of the upper realms who has somehow dropped into crude daily life. So, with opposites attracting, the marriage of Esteban and Clara is inevitable--as is the succession of Clara-influenced children and grandchildren. Daughter Blanca ignores Class barriers to fall in love with--and bear a child by--the foreman's son, who will later become a famous left wing troubadour (on the model of Victor Jara). Twin boys Jaime and Nicholas head off in different directions--one growing up to become a committed physician, the other a mystic/entrepreneur. And Alba, the last clairvoyant female of the lineage, will end the novel in a concentration camp of the Pinochet regime. Allende handles the theosophical elements here matter-of-factly: the paranormal powers of the Trueba women have to be taken more or less on faith. (Veteran readers of Latin American fiction have come to expect mysticism as part of the territory.) And the political sweep sometimes seems excessively insistent or obtrusive: even old Esteban recants from his reactionary ways at the end, when they seem to destroy his family. ("Thus the months went by, and it became clear to everyone, even Senator Trueba, that the military had seized power to keep it for themselves and not hand the country over to the politicians of the right who made the coup possible.") But there's a comfortable, appealing professionalism to Allende's narration, slowly turning the years through the Truebas' passions and secrets and fidelities. She doesn't rush; the characters are clear and sharp; there's style here but nothing self-conscious or pretentious. So, even if this saga isn't really much deeper than the Belva Plain variety, it's uncommonly satisfying--with sturdy, old-fashioned storytelling and a fine array of exotic, historical shadings. (Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1985)

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