For some writers, their stories are about helping the reader escape into a different world. Sometimes, they want to draw light to some social or political topic in the real world by illuminating it in the brilliance and strangeness of fantasy, and sometimes they just want to tell a story about a ghost. Some writers take down an unflinching and bracing image of the real world, forcing readers to confront reality and all of its ugliness. Some paint flowers and rainbows on reality to offer an image of hope and optimism to the downtrodden reader.
I usually want to escape, or at least find hope, in the pages of a book. I like to go on adventures and make friends and find courage and strength. I like to find monsters and defeat them or understand them. I like to see women and girls taking some power back in their lives and triumphing over systems designed to keep them down. I like a little magic, a little romance, and a little drama.
I knew a precious little about which to expect from The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. I knew it had elements of magical realism and was set in South America. I had seen the movie version at some point, but had pretty much entirely forgotten anything I knew about it, except that Meryl Streep was in it. I was hoping for something magical and cultural, something about the bonds of womanhood and family, something uplifting that I could escape into.
I didn’t get that.
The novel tells the story of three generations of mystical women as they navigate love and loss in turn of the century South America (I’m guessing Chile, though we’re never explicitly told). It’s filled with the strange and the uncanny. For the first portion of the book, telling the story of Clara, the matriarch, and her youth, I liked it well enough, but by the middle, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
I have a few issues with this novel, but I’ll only go into one structural one and one personal one to keep this brief!
My first issue with this novel is the way it is told. It begins in third person omniscient and then, randomly, switches into first person. It makes zero sense when or why it swaps over and the random insertion of the first person, the patriarch of the family, continues throughout the story. Even when we are told at the end that the recounting is an effort of the surviving family to tell their stories, the trespass isn’t needed. For me, the change was quite an intrusion, and not in the least because Esteban is one of the most abhorrent characters in a book of abhorrent characters. I didn’t want his two cents. He was showing his character on the page, and I didn’t want his excuses or apologies. I would categorize him as the villain of the book, though I know other readers are more sympathetic. His narrative served to distance me even more from the female characters in the story that I actually liked and cared about.
On the note of distancing, Allende tells this story almost exclusively from the “telling” side of the “showing vs. telling” dynamic that writers learn about when first introduced to the craft. There is almost no dialogue or in-the-moment action, just the cold and indifferent recitation of the character’s thoughts and actions. It feels like reading a textbook sometimes. I felt so far removed from the characters that they became almost like mirages or archetypes. Clara, by the end, was the Victorian “angel of the house” to me, and I felt like she had become a flattened and inflexible portrait of a character instead of an actual living and breathing person. I like to read books where I feel like the characters are real, like they could exist in my world, like I know them and have spent time with them at their side. I was disappointed to see the way that Allende’s style rendered otherwise interesting and exciting characters completely tasteless.
The characters in this novel were caricatures to me, partly because of the way that Allende’s story-telling style distanced me from them, but also because they were all either wonderfully good or horribly bad. There were very few characters that showed the real complexity of personality. The only ones that fell between good and bad were indifferent and boring and their storylines went basically nowhere, like Jamie and Nicolas. I felt like Allende was just trying to make her characters as extreme as possible — as spiritualistic as possible, as quirky as possible, as hateful as possible — and in those extremes, all the shades of gray that endear us to one another were completely lost. Everyone was painted in bright colors so they would stand out against the background of the world, which Allende painted, I think, with more precision and awareness than she did her characters.
I like character driven stories, and I felt like this one was historically driven. Allende wanted to craft the world of revolutionary South America, which I think she did quite vividly and clearly. But, if I wanted to learn about the revolutions and political atmosphere, I would have picked up a nonfiction title.
My personal complaint is about the content and trigger warnings in this novel. The list would be essentially endless. A few I can think of off the top of my head:
- drug abuse
- extreme poverty
- terror and violence against the poor
- extreme graphic injuries and mutilation
- animal abuse
- extreme graphic sickness and illness
- child abuse
Those are just off the top of my head. This novel was filled with excessive and graphic abuse on all fronts. No one was spared. The women, obviously, bore the brunt of the violence, which I found surprising since the author was a woman. Usually, that kind of excessive violence against women is only part of male narratives. Everyone was toxic in some way, everyone abused someone else, and no one was safe from violence and harm.
I understand the use of these things in narrative that want to look unflinchingly at real life, or even at historical events, to drive home both the immense capacity for hurt that humans can have, but also the immense capacity for healing. I get the use of these things to mark the development of situations and characters, but I will never understand the graphic and excessive use. It was simply over the top. I would have felt for Alba’s pain without graphic depictions of every instrument of torture used on her body. I would have disliked Esteban Trueba without acute detail about every rape he committed.
I think writers are doing one of two things when they write in this way: 1) they are indulging themselves and are sick or 2) they greatly underestimate their reader’s power of empathy. I am a hugely empathetic person, I think largely in part because I grew up reading. Reading forces us to be empathetic, to think about other people’s experiences and feelings. When writers choose to use graphic scenes instead of introspective ones, I think they are doing their readers and themselves a great disservice. It is far more powerful to show us the mental and emotional effects of these things than it is to describe in detail where the character physically felt each prick of pain on their body.
Overall, this is not a book that I would highly recommend. It’s a study of literary excess, of trying to make everything so big that the result can only be that the whole endeavor is made small. I think it was painful to read for a variety of reasons, a lot of which could have been avoided, and I don’t see myself picking up an Allende book again.
I hope, dear reader, you’ll take my review with a grain of salt. I mostly want you to be fairly warned about the content of this book. At the end of the day, I want you to read whatever the hell you’d like, because reading is reading, and it’s something we all benefit from.
Until next time, dear reader!