Multigenerational family epics are difficult. One of the most powerful things a writer can do is create a protagonist the reader can invest in. Multigenerational stories spurn this wisdom for a different kind of magic, one that relies on the reader to follow the threads that connect the family members over years, decades, sometimes even centuries. If not done properly, the result can be messy or just uninteresting. Every once in a while, however, I read a book that gets it right. The House of the Spirits is one such book. Isabel Allende very slowly captures my heart and makes me care about three generations of a family in twentieth-century Chile.
I had no idea what this book was about when I began reading it. I had never heard of Isabel Allende. It took me a while to even realize the book was set in Chile. At first, ignorant dunce that I am, I saw “translated from the Spanish” on the frontispiece and assumed the book was set in Spain. (Maybe I can’t be blamed for having Spain on my mind though.) Enough references to pesos, Indians, and other distinctly non-Spanish things finally penetrated my thick skull, and I began to realize this was set in South America. Which is really quite cool, because I don’t read enough fiction set in South America, by South American authors. So this is a treat.
Of course, it could all have gone downhill from there. It took me a week to read The House of the Spirits. Though not too long, it is dense. There is very little dialogue. Instead, each lengthy chapter consists mostly of description and narration laid out in huge, gangly paragraphs that perch upon the page, waiting leap out at unsuspecting readers and swallow them whole. I managed to escape such a fate, fortunately, and report back, but it took me a little longer than I would have liked.
There’s a narrative reason for this ponderous prose. The book is a journal by Alba Trueba recollecting the lives of her parents and grandparents, as well as the beginning of her own life. She has cobbled it together from her grandmother Clara’s journals, her own recollections, and her grandfather Esteban’s recollections. Allende even includes short passages rendered in the first-person from Esteban’s point of view; these provide key insights into events only Esteban witnesses, as well as insights into Esteban himself. So the meagre amount of dialogue and emphasis on exposition makes sense.
The characterization here is impressive, no less so because Allende breaks that cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell.” We’ve come to expect our fiction to have the pace of the scene-then-sequel, revealing through action and dialogue the thoughts and feelings and tenors of the characters. But Allende proves that every rule in writing can be broken if one has a good reason. At first, I had no idea who any of the characters were or what was going on. Daunted by all the names and the massive paragraphs, I was unsure if I would ever get comfortable in this story. Gradually—and I have no idea how it happened, so I can only credit Allende for some kind of magic—it all coalesced and began to make sense.
Esteban Trueba is the one who stuck with me the most as an example of Allende’s excellent characterization. He begins as a grubby, ambitious miner who pays suit to Rosa, Clara’s older sister. After Rosa dies, he leaves for his family’s country estate, over which he establishes his dominion with an iron fist. And he’s not a nice person: he rapes peasant girls, and he keeps his tenants in squalor and poverty. But then, he promises his dying mother to marry, so he goes off to his former beloved’s family and marries their last daughter (like you do), the slightly-psychic Clara.
From there, the picture becomes more complicated. Esteban is a moody bastard—but he genuinely falls head-over-heels for Clara, who does not return that affection. He opposes the feminist stances of his wife and daughter, becoming ever more conservative and ornery as he grows older. By the time he is an old man, with a granddaughter who is the apple of his eye, he is the acknowledged caricature of a reactionary, incorrigible old-timer, walking around yelling at people and gesticulating with his trademark silver cane. Esteban is not a nice person. But Allende shows us moments of tenderness with Clara or Alba. He shows grudging respect for his political and personal enemy, Pedro Tercero García. I found this portrayal of all the different sides of Esteban Trueba extremely effective at gaining my sympathy.
It’s also a reminder that people are complex. Good people are seldom good all the time; bad people are seldom bad all the time. Life is a messy collection of circumstance. Through the three generations of this family, Allende explores what that means, how people can act in good or bad ways depending on their age and influences, and what effect that might have on others. We can’t choose who our relations are, only how we relate to them. And sometimes that can be awkward all around: Esteban’s granddaughter is the lover of a Communist revolutionary; Alba is the granddaughter of a leading conservative senator. Both struggle with these kinds of relations, as they figure out how to create their own public and private identities while sharing links to people whose philosophies or actions disagree with theirs.
The House of Spirits also portrays a country in political turmoil. It does this obliquely, its characters mostly on the periphery of politics, with only a few, like Esteban and Miguel, directly engaged. In this respect, it reminds me of A Thousand Splendid Suns, which portrays Afghanistan's lurching transition from monarchy to Soviet communism to Taliban totalitarianism through the experiences of one woman and her family. As Chilean society changes, Esteban's views are cast into different lights, and at times he's even worn down, coming to accept that women might be able to work and participate in the sciences. At the end of the novel, Esteban discovers that his faith in the honour of a military he initially supported had been misplaced. Though we might shake our heads in disbelief, Allende demonstrates the attitudes of denial, anger, and compromise that must have been prevalent at the time. Even amid something as disruptive and bloody as a coup, it isn't obvious how or when freedoms and liberty have slipped away.
Esteban is interesting because of how he changes over the decades. On the other hand, Alba enters the story towards the end, albeit after much foreshadowing. She exemplifies how other people's decisions, even those made before one's birth, affect the course of one's life. Alba doesn't discover her true parentage until adulthood, and she manages to take the news in stride. I wonder how her life would have been different of she had known the identity of her father.
I wish Alba's uncles had received more prominent stories. Jamie stays involved right up until the end and plays an important role, but Nicolas is put on a bus well before the end. Then again, I suppose that only shows how some people are with us all our lives while others come and go or simply go.
The House of the Spirits isn't going to impress everyone. It is a slow, lingering look at a family's brief caress by history. But I enjoyed its careful pacing and introspection. It also educated me about a country and historical event about which I knew very little.
I've managed to get through this review without mentioning magical realism (and now I've gone and ruined it). Honestly, I don't think it's anything to get hung up about in this book. It's worth discussing, however, why Allende crossed that line between portraying Clara as a believer and showing her moving objects or predicting the future. Clara's clairvoyance and precognition provide an elegant symmetry to her all-encompassing notebooks which are the backbone of the narrative. Her visions of the future made her realize the importance of preserving the past. This tight relationship between past and future, linked by storytelling, is evident in the book's recursive ending.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. If you want a slower, more relaxed read that still offers much to mull offer, you can't go wrong with The House of the Spirits. Allende does multigenerational right, creating characters who change as they clash, cooperate, and come together during a tumultuous time in Chile.