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Isabel Allende’s The House Of The Spirits is not an easy book to capture in a few words. It is a sprawling, layered read that spans generations, flitting between reality and magic with that deliberate ease that has become associated so strongly with Latin American writers – Allende and the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Elena Garro, are often referred to as the originators of the “magic realism” genre of writing.
The novel, incidentally, was also the Chilean author’s first, setting her on the path to literary stardom upon its publication in 1982. Yet, for all her fame in literary circles, I’m rather ashamed to admit that I didn’t even realise she was a novelist until I was in my early 20s. Well, that’s not really true; I knew and loved Allende’s works, but I knew her as a writer of young adult (YA) fiction, and was deeply in love with her trilogy of YA books that began in 2002 with City Of The Beasts (followed by Kingdom Of The Golden Dragon and Forest Of The Pygmies).
The book tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who joins his adventurous grandmother on an expedition to the Amazon, where she seeks to document the existence of a legendary creature known as the Beast. But he and a newfound friend, Nadia, unearth secrets in the forest that are not just about the people who live there but about themselves as well.
Allende’s penchant for weaving the surreal into the real is apparent in City Of The Beasts, though within a YA framework, it doesn’t feel nearly as distinct as her “adult” fiction – YA has long been treading the line between magic and realism without necessarily needing a name for it.
But like her other works, the YA book has its politics as well – and they are clearly spelled out. In this case, it’s a treatise against capitalism and overdevelopment, and touches on issues like environmental degradation and the exploitation of indigenous communities.
It was actually in the Kinokuniya Bookstore in Kuala Lumpur, back in the early 2000s, that I first realised that Allende had, in fact, numerous critically-acclaimed “literary” books to her name. Till that point, I had thought she was, like many other YA writers, relatively unknown outside of that specific genre (bear with me here – it was still the early days of the Internet!).
So I had asked a bookstore assistant to help me look for other Allende titles in their system – assuming there would be other YA titles – and was led to a shelf stocked with thick and rather serious-sounding tomes. As it turns out, she’d only written those three YA books. And so in disappointment I gave up my quest and left empty-handed.
Since then, I’ve not read another book by Allende – until now, when I settled upon The House Of The Spirits for this month’s column. It was an interesting experience. In many ways, it felt like I was reading a completely different author from the YA fiction writer I had read before.
And from a narrative perspective, it was certainly different. Reading The House Of Spirits is a lush, absorbing experience, particularly when it comes to the three women who are at the heart of the story: Clara, her daughter Blanca, and Blanca’s daughter Alba. In contrast is the family patriarch Esteban, who constantly walks the line between outlandish villainy and the kind of complexity that catches you unawares.
Allende places these characters in an unnamed country that mirrors Chile’s history in the years leading up to and during the Pinochet regime, and the elements of the fantastic – Clara’s clairvoyance and physical manifestations of her abilities, the nonchalant incidences of the uncanny around them – throw into stark relief the lack of power afforded to the country’s people, particularly its women.
Oddly enough, it was perhaps in the books’ shortcomings that I saw similarities to her YA works cropping up – for instance, of wearing its politics on its sleeve. Allende’s stance on Chile’s socialist revolution and the subsequent military junta are clear, and this tends to colour her characterisation. All socialists seem to be noble, while all supporters of the government corrupt in some way. Similarly, City Of The Beasts has a strict dichotomy between the cartoonishly bad capitalists who are hellbent on destroying the rainforest and its residents for profit, and the peaceful, uniformly good-natured indigenous communities.
In both stories, there is a tendency to over-simplify people’s motivations to suit the story’s trajectory, and to settle on simple answers rather than a more complex meditation on the grey areas. And while these flaws didn’t jump out as much when I was reading City Of The Beasts years ago – it was a much shorter and less complex book, and I was much younger – they did mar for me what was otherwise an overwhelmingly positive introduction to Allende’s novels.
I do wonder whether I would have been more forgiving of these flaws if I had read The House Of Spirits at an earlier point in my life – and a part of me wishes rather wistfully that I had picked up a non-YA title by Allende that day about 15 years ago in the bookstore.