“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA by Isabel Allende

Slavery is an ugly concept that strikes to the very heart of the human experience. In this her 15th novel, Isabel Allende focuses on the impact of slavery on women and children in particular. As the daughter of a slave, her heroine Tété, who is known to her nearest and dearest as Zarité, is born into slavery. When French plantation owner Toulouse Valmorain arrives on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue in 1770, he buys Tété to serve as his wife’s maid.
  The intertwined destinies of Tété and Valmorain form the narrative spine of ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA. It’s an epic tale set against a fertile historical backdrop, which incorporates the slaves’ revolution on Saint-Domingue, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Allende explores all strata of society, creating a panoply of characters that includes priests, doctors, prostitutes, buccaneers, soldiers, society madams, slave overseers and radicalising abolitionists. For all its grand sweep, however, the novel is an intensely personal tale of Tété’s struggle to survive, endure and finally escape the shackles of slavery.
  The story is told for the most part in a formal third-person narrative, but Allende blends the political and the personal by allowing Tété to occasionally step forward from the teeming dramatis personae and deliver first-person accounts.
  Allende’s vivid prose makes this an intoxicating read at times, whether she’s describing the lushly beautiful hinterland of Saint-Domingue (the island that would later be divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) or the heartbreaking cruelty meted out to slaves on the merest whim of their owners. The tale itself, meanwhile, has a compelling quality as the relationship between Tété and Valmorain becomes intensely personal, and blood-lines blur as emancipation becomes a political reality.
  Most notable of all, however, is Allende’s barely restrained sense of moral outrage at the fate of the slaves who were doomed to work themselves to death on the sugarcane plantations of Saint-Domingue. While she refers for the most part only elliptically to the horrendous tortures and deaths perpetrated by the white masters, the complete physical, sexual and psychological control exerted over Tété makes for utterly depressing reading. Or would do, were it not for Tété’s unbreakable will and her unshakeable faith in her own worth.
  In preaching her gospel, however, Allende has a propensity for veering into a didactic mode that sits uneasily with the novel’s internal logic. Tété’s personal accounts offer a deeper understanding of the character’s motivations, for example, and are particularly heart-rending when she speaks of the children she has had by her master. However, it is never explained as to how a plantation slave garnered the education that might allow her write so persuasively, while the prose employed is too fluent to be convincing as an oral account.
  There are times, too, when Allende’s prose becomes unnecessarily fervid. Describing Tété’s forbidden dalliance with the revolutionary slave Gambo, for example, she writes:
“ … she swung astride him, ramming into herself that burning member she had so longed for, bending down to cover his face with kisses, lick his ears, caress him with her nipples, rock on his hips, squeeze him between her Amazon’s thighs, undulating like an eel on the sandy floor of the sea. They romped as if it were the first and the last time, inventing new steps in the ancient dance.”
  There is also a shallow quality to the characterisation of the minor players, who tend to be all good or all bad, depending on their emotional intelligence and their sensitivity, or otherwise, to the slaves’ plight. Valmorain, on the other hand, is a fascinating character precisely because he is neither good nor bad. Instead he is a weak and vain man who allows evil be done in his name, and one from whom - appropriately, given his historical context - a simplistic and reductive redemption is ultimately withheld.
  All told, however, ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA makes for an enthralling read, an unusually thought-provoking page-turner. While Allende makes deft use of contemporary allusions - the appalling poverty of what would one day become Haiti, some minor flooding in New Orleans - there is no doubting the relevance of the central thrust of her story, which is that slavery is no less a blight on humanity now than it was in the past. - Declan Burke

  This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post

1 comment:

Lauren said...

I love Allende's writing and adore historical fiction. Thanks for the review.