The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

I picked up my second hand copy of this book for £1 at the Liverpool Bluecoat Book Fair, quite a while ago. I had tried to read The Infinite Plan by this author over 10 years ago and could not get into it at all. It was abandoned about a third the way through it.

I currently own 4 Allende titles, all have made their way to me through various routes, but it is not until now that I have attempted another. The high regard for this author led me to add her onto my list of 2011 challenges and I finished this book on the 31st December, just in time to count.

Spanning 4 generations of the eccentric Trueba family in Chile, South America, we follow all of the colourful stories and adventures of the various members. This is an epic story that reminded me, in scope, of East of Eden by John Steinbeck, covering various episodes in the countries history.

The narrative, however, is slightly different to Steinbeck, with 2 members of the family relaying their experiences in the first person, by Esteban Trueba, the patriarch who lives through all of the events depicted, and what seems to be a third person but later is revealed as the granddaughter, Alba, who relays the family history through the notebooks of her grandmother, Clara the Clairvoyant. It is here where the book is at its most quirky, when describing the spiritual life of the house and Clara's connection to the other world beyond this one, adding a whole new dimension to this families story.

Every character is relayed with love and affection, for their strengths and their weaknesses, and it feels as if the author has relished telling you about them. A lot of the stories, especially during the first half, are humourous, narrated with a twinkle in the eye of the teller. Some stories are fantastical, others tragic, none are dull or run of the mill. Observations on life and the human condition are told in such an interesting way so that the pages fly by without noticing.

I was immediately engulfed by the warmth that emanates from this book, enjoying it from the first page. The language is uncomplicated, with an irresistable clarity. There is poetry, but the main draw is the characters. It is not a series of episodes or short stories, but a long narrative with detailed links holding every generation together. Each generation flows into the next so that by the end you carry all of them with you and view the family as a whole, made up of very distinct characters, some of whom are not altogether likeable, and it is the women who come over strongest.

The last chapters of the book deal shockingly with the effects of political unrest, revolution and dictatorship, and how individuals can be swept up by this, with horrific and tragic consequences, adding yet another angle to the history of this family.

I really enjoyed this book. It took me a long while to read, not because it was difficult or any way laborious, but I am a slow reader and the type was quite dense on the page. I can see why it is considered one of the authors masterpieces and a prominent title from fiction of recent times.

Highly recommended for fiction readers generally, and particularly for those who love epic family stories and Latin American fiction.

You can visit Isabel Allende's Website by using the link.

A study guide for The House of the Spirits can be found by using the link.

There is a movie of The House of the Spirits made in 1993 starring Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder and Antonio Banderas. I have not heard great things about it sadly, but I may look out for it for comparison.

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