Review: The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last month my Classic Read for my blog was Gabriel García Márquez's epic One Hundred Years of Solitude. I'm glad that I read that book before this one because it's obvious that Márquez's writing was a strong influence on Allende's. On the face of it, a multigenerational family saga with elements of magical realism and strong female characters sounds like it must be overly similar to Márquez's book. But expect that and you'd be wrong. While there are obvious similarities, Allende's sharp takes on the abuses of men in positions of power and swipes at political corruption in Chile are clever and set the book apart from Márquez's story. Allende, who is related to deposed Chilean president Salvador Allende, has written a far more overtly political book than that of Márquez.

The story of the Trueba and del Valle families, we first meet Clara del Valle as a child who is gifted with the gift or curse of clairvoyance. She keeps a journal and it is through this journal that we learn of the fifty years of her family's history, meeting her parents, Severo and Nivea, her beautiful and doomed sister Rosa, her beloved uncle Marcos, teller of stories and the one who brings her a dog, Barrabás upon his death. We also meet Esteban Trueba and his sister Férula. Esteban, who was engaged to Rosa the beautiful, gives up his mining work after Rosa's death and returns to his family's hacienda, Tres Marías where he rapes pretty much every young woman he can get his hands on, clearly on the assumption that it's his right as the boss of the estate. Eventually, when his mother is dying, he promises to marry and have children. Upon his mother's death, he goes looking to see who else the del Valle family might have available to marry. (It's important to note that the del Valles are liberals and Trueba is a conservative.) Eventually, he marries Clara and both Esteban and his sister Férula become obsessed with her, in part because she cannot be possessed by anyone. Clara and Esteban have a child, Blanca, who falls in love with a revolutionary with Marxist ideals, Pedro Tercero Garcia. (Clara and Esteban also have sons Jaime and Nicolás, with strongly different personalities.) Esteban García, illegitimate son of Esteban Trueba from one of his rape victims, Pancha García, has inherited some of his father's charming violence toward women (even children, like Blanca's daughter Alba). Eventually, the socialists come to power, but then the military seizes power in a violent coup, spelling disaster for the Trueba family. Jaime is killed and then Alba falls into the hands of García (now a colonel) where she is repeatedly brutalized and mutilated by him. The ghost of Clara, her dead grandmother, sustains Alba and helps her survive. Once freed, Alba and Esteban Trueba complete writing the story of the Trueba family and Esteban dies. Rather than pursue revenge, Alba, whose name means sunrise, seeks to forgive and move on with her life.

This book, because of an entire chapter devoted to Alba's rape and torture at the hands of her uncle Esteban (who is her mother Clara's illegitimate half-brother), is a grueling read. Frankly, there is so much violence and rape in this book that I had to put it down several times. But Allende is not using a rape trope to show us women who become stronger, etc. If anything she is showing us the brutality of both the conservative Patrón (Esteban Trueba) and the military (represented in the person of Esteban García). Father and son are both horrible individuals, though at least Trueba eventually admits to Blanca and Alba that the military government he supported overthrowing the socialists he hates is far worse than government he wanted them to overthrow, and he tries ardently to get Alba back from his brutal son.

There are so many themes one can examine in this book, from the fact that all political extremes are harmful, to the use of writing within the novel itself conveying the story, to the juxtaposition of the legitimate and illegitimate (children, governments, etc). There is also the role of social class and its relation to abuse of power to examine.

While without question House of the Spirits is a true classic of Latin American literature, giving us a taut novel of political historical fiction with magical realism, it is also a book I can only recommend with Trigger Warnings.

TW: rape, torture, murder

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