A rich and compelling novel, A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende is an ambitious and outstanding feat of literature, spanning multiple families, generations, and continents, taking the reader on a journey through key moments of recent history. Despite being set against the chaotic backdrop of work, the book is far from bleak. Rather, Allende showers her pages with love, compassion, and shows the reader that kindness and hope reach far beyond the perceived hatred of the times.
The novel is complex and heavy in its subject, so Allende’s prose is simple yet impactful, freeing the reader from the weight of description that may have otherwise jeopardised the narrative. Instead, focus is given to the characters – while the historical events are detailed and understood, the book is very much character-driven. We turn each page to see what each character does next, and the journey that he/she takes against this tumultuous backdrop. At first, this almost stripped down way of writing took me by surprise. How was it that Allende was managing to place me in these very real historical situations, surrounded by characters that (she reveals) were inspired by people she knew at the time, without paragraphs and paragraphs of scene setting, world building, or carefully chosen metaphors?
Instead, Allende’s characters do the work for her. Their layered personalities, deep emotional bonds with each other, and the way that they move through the novel, carry the prose right through to the end. Just like the shifting attitudes that span many decades, the characters in A Long Petal of the Sea are far from stagnant. They mould and adapt with their surroundings just as ‘real’ people do, something that too often, authors forget. Characters are silent for chapters, disappearing from the pages and lurking only in the background, then return with a flourish, showcasing their changed nature.
While the story mainly follows the viewpoint of Victor, two of the strongest and most interesting characters in the novel, and ones that display this notion of adapting and change best, are Marcel and Ofelia. In terms of Marcel – the child of Roser and the largely absent Guillem – it was fascinating to see how Allende portrayed his growth into adulthood, and the influence that this backdrop of conflict had on his life decisions. Unlike his caregivers, he considers himself Chilean, and knows very little about his Spanish heritage. We see him struggle to make a legitimate place for himself in this changing world, and he only really see his character begin to develop properly once he begins a new life in America, away from the limitations and expectations he experienced in Chile. As the novel spans from his birth, way into his middle-age years, his is perhaps the clearest representation of what it meant to be an immigrant during this time and place, and as the novel progresses, his presence becomes more and more felt.
Ofelia, on the other hand, offers a very different insight into how others (namely, the wealthy) were affected by the political landscape of the area. The early stages of the novel, where Allende writes of this passionate love affair between Ofelia and Victor, are perhaps some of the most beautiful in the novel. Each paragraph is charged with emotion, and despite the backdrop of war, something wonderful is imagined for these two characters – a strong, deep love that eventually transcends time and distant to form something much more complex and meaningful for the reader. Yet despite her emotional portrayal, Ofelia is also incredibly headstrong. In the novel, we see her develop from a troubled and rebellious young woman, into a calm and inspired recluse. While her eventual life choices and self-imposed distance from the happenings around her are not necessarily applauded by the other characters, hers is perhaps the most understandable and largest transformation of them all. Her life events have been controlled by the people (especially the men) around her, so we see her attempting to form something beautiful on her own, away from the prying eyes of society.
Her character also gives Allende a chance to highlight that, while the events of the time were no doubt important and critical for citizens living through them, not everyone was engaged politically, and those that could afford often just went about their lives as best they could, without letting the influence override their desires. I enjoyed this aspect of the novel – it felt very realistic and raised interesting questions into who exactly can turn a blind eye to politics, showcasing the different, changing classes of the country. Ofelia and Victor’s families have two differing views of the occupation and thoughts about what democracy really means, and as the novel goes on, these opposing views are bought to light. Their differences are highlighted in a pivotal meeting between Felipe and Victor later on, where they discuss just how the recent years have treated them. This coming together of the two men is short yet impactful and in just a few pages, we understand that despite our story largely following Victor, a whole other experience has been happening for the other family, where different ideologies have been formed and a new path followed.
A Long Petal of the Sea feels very much like a love letter to everyone who preserved and struggled through these times. To those who, despite the bleak and troubled situations spanning across countries and time periods, managed to bring forth love, passion and beauty into the world. For me, the novel worked in two ways. It highlighted the importance of literature within its pages, using the protest poetry of Neruda as a focus and key figure for channelling just how vital the power of the written word could be, and the importance of creating art. Yet the novel itself is also an important form of art, as Allende teaches us just how passionate humanity can be, even during a time like this. It’s a deep, emotionally charged novel, where the simplicity of language manages to convey the complexity of human connections.
A Long Petal of the Sea is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.
Isabel Allende—novelist, feminist, and philanthropist—is one of the most
widely-read authors in the world, having sold more than 74 million books. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel won worldwide acclaim in 1982 with the publication of her first novel, The House of the Spirits, which began as a letter to her dying grandfather. Since then, she has authored more than twenty three bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Daughter of Fortune, Island Beneath the Sea, Paula, The Japanese Lover and In the Midst of Winter. Translated into
more than forty two languages. Allende’s works entertain and educate readers by interweaving imaginative stories with significant historical events.
In addition to her work as a writer, Allende devotes much of her time to human rights causes. In 1996, following the death of her daughter Paula, she established a charitable foundation in her honor, which has awarded grants to more than 100 nonprofits worldwide, delivering life-changing care to hundreds of thousands of women and girls. More than 8 million have watched her TED Talks on leading a passionate life.
She has received fifteen honorary doctorates, including one from Harvard University, was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, received the PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Allende the Presidential Medal of
Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and in 2018 she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. She lives in California. Her website is IsabelAllende.com.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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