I’ve had Isabel Allende’s debut novel sitting on my shelf for about five years or so. I’d started to read it and then stopped a few pages in for reasons I can’t remember. When I started reading it again, I half suspected I was going to give up on it again, but I persevered and soon enough I was hooked!
This is a beautifully written book with eccentric characters who were amusing, despicable, and heartbreaking sometimes all at once. The House of the Spirits begins with Rosa the Beautiful, the eldest daughter del Valle family who is engaged to Esteban Trueba, one of the main protagonists of the novel along with Clara, Rosa’s younger sister who is gifted with paranormal abilities which lend to the novel’s magical realism. Spanning four generations, the novel tells the story of the Trueba family as well as highlighting the social and political upheaval in Chile. Though the country itself is never explicitly mentioned, many of the characters closely parallel historical figures such as the former president of Chile Salvador Allende, Isabel Allende’s first cousin.
I loved the historical elements as various characters warred with one another over the political climate of the time which culminates in some truly shocking events. Also fascinating was the descriptions of how the world the Truebas inhabited was changing not just politically but socially too. In the midst of this Allende also paints this magical and passionate world where the spiritual happily coexists with the natural.
With all their faults and eccentricities, I couldn’t help but to fall in a little in love with the Trueba family. Though it has to be said that Esteban Trueba is not the most pleasant of people, but yet I found his character to be one of the most interesting because he was so driven, so proud and at times if not most of the time thoroughly unpleasant but still really quite funny. My favourite scenes include his rages against his sons’ idiosyncracies. I think making him one of the novel’s narrators prevented him from being an all out baddie because you’re able to see his remorse over the actions he took, which made him a much more sympathetic character than he perhaps deserved.
What really stood out for me was how the women were portrayed. The role and position of women in Chilean society is a strong theme in the novel and Allende seems determined to have her main female characters defy convention one way or another. From Nivea de Valle’s activism for women’s liberation, Clara with her paranormal abilities to Alba, Clara’s granddaughter, revolutionary activities, each woman possesses a strength of spirit and determination that holds the family together. It’s Clara then Alba who soften Esteban’s hard heartedness by virtue of them just being.
I think most people can cite the mother, auntie or grandmother who is the heart of the family, which is probably why this novel is so beautiful because you can identify with it on some level. Also like most families especially large ones, there’s disagreement and squabbles but love and loyalty for one another prevails above all else, which make the eventual betrayals all the more painful to read.
It’s hard to continue to write this review without giving too much away, which I don’t want to do especially if you haven’t read it before. It’s best you experience it without knowing much of what’s going to happen. It’s one of those books which you must savour and enjoy as you go along. It’s humorous, touching and downright emotional, by the end I was almost in tears, a rare reaction for me! Definitely one to re-read in another five years or so.