Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy.
The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
For 2018, my official goal is to read 30 books, after failing to reach my goal in 2017 (to be fair, I moved (twice), started a new job, traveled, and dealt with the usual timesuckers associated with adulthood). Unofficially, I’m also striving to read books by new authors – new to me, even if they’ve been critically acclaimed for decades. There’s always been quite a few authors whose works I’ve been meaning to explore – Allende being one of them.
I knew little about The House of the Spirits going in, and it completely floored me. The novel tells the story of the Trueba family through four generations, focusing on patriarch Esteban Trueba, his wife Clara, his daughter Blanca, and his beloved granddaughter Alba. While the novel does focus on the Trueba women and their responses to the changing role of women in Chilean society throughout different periods, Esteban remains the constant in the story, providing a somewhat stereotypically male perspective. Clara, Blanca, and Alba are masterfully drawn characters, similar as family members should be, but each endowed with her own distinct traits. I also enjoyed that the Trueba women are all portrayed as being actively involved in their communities by educating and helping those of less fortunate circumstances. In addition to the Truebas, The House of the Spirits boasts a large cast of characters, all of whom are drawn realistically and mostly sympathetically. Even characters with the darkest of motives are given some sort of backstory and are not completely unsympathetic.
I was not at all familiar with Chilean history while reading the novel, which depicts political and social upheaval in post-colonial Chile. The novel does not refer to its setting as Chile, instead opting for the generic “the country”. Similarly, political figures are referred to generically as “the president”, “the poet”, and so on. I did take the effort to find the real life names of these political figures; however, I think the anonymity the novel presents is also of value. Readers who have experienced similar political turbulence could easily substitute the novel’s political figures for those of their own country as applicable. Growing up, I’ve heard countless stories of dictatorship and similar social upheaval from my parents’ childhood in Korea. While I never experienced this turbulence myself, I could understand the social problems faced by the characters in the novel by relating it my parents’ stories, especially as the characters’ political and social views begin to impact their day-to-day lives. While The House of the Spirits allows readers to learn more about Chile, it is also vastly relatable in the realness of its characters, as well as its representation of the conflict between the right and left.
YES OR NO?: Definitely YES. The House of the Spirits tells a richly layered, multi-faceted tale of family, romance, history, and politics. Although it incorporates elements of magical realism, I found things never get too quirky or bizarre for the average reader.