Isabel Allende is one of my all time favourite writers.
When I was in middle-grade I fell in love with her Eagle and Jaguar series and in the years since I’ve enjoyed other novels by her.
Having loved her memoir of Chile, My Invented Country, I was looking forward to A Long Petal of the Sea as it promised to be an evocative account of Spanish refugees in Chile.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this novel tells the story of a young doctor, Victor Dalmau, who alongside his sister-in-law and many of their compatriots are forced into exile. The narrative opens in Spain, introducing us to Victor, his family, and Roser. Here Allende spends large sections to detailing the causes and consequences of the Spanish Civil War. We read of the bleak reality of soldiers such as Victor’s brother as well as the dangers faced by civilians. Victor, who is fighting against the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, soon realises that the only way he and his loved ones can survive is by leaving their once beloved but now unrecognisable country.
Enter the poet Pablo Neruda. It is thanks to him and the Winnipeg ship that around 2,000 refugees were able to escape a war torn Europe. In Chile Victor and Roser will have to learn to acclimate to a culture that is different from their own one. Their new status as refugees is not an easy one to embrace and both Victor and Roser will find difficulties in adjusting themselves to their new home.
On paper the story sounded like a tragic yet poignant epic. Sadly, within the first pages I soon picked up on the fact that in this novel Allende’s writing is all-telling and no-showing. There are a few brief dialogues here and there, but for the most part it is an act-by-act account of historical events with a few uninspired soap-operish elements thrown into the mix.
This ‘happened’, and then this ‘happened’, and years later this ‘happened’. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if the style hadn’t been so very dry. I never grew connected to the people she was writing of because they didn’t really strike me as real people (which is ironic given that there are a few cameos of real-life people).
I managed to make my way through this narrative but only out of a sense of duty (towards Allende, whom I still consider to be an excellent writer and towards NetGalley). Usually it takes me a few days to finish a book…A Long Petal of the Sea took me over a week.
In the acknowledgments section Allende writes that “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me”. And in some ways it makes sense. This book feels like a blow by blow recital. The story lacks spontaneity and life, the characters are expandable.
While I recognise the vast amount of research that Allende must have carried out in order to write this book, and that she was inspired by the story of someone she personally knew…the writing is this novel far too passive for my taste.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars
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