Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Isabel Allende: The Sum of Our Days

Sophie Gorman reviews Isabel Allende's The Sum of Our Days.
Isabel Allende is one of the best-known Latin American novelists (her most famous book The House of the Spirits was a huge international bestseller) who writes in the magic realism tradition. She is part of the Allende family from Chile, which included President Allende, but has lived for years in the US with her extended family. She now has more than a dozen novels to her name but a personal tragedy was the basis for one of her most moving books.

In December 1991, Allende's 26-year-old daughter Paula suddenly fell grievously ill and sank into a coma from which she would never wake up. Devastated as she watched her daughter die, Allende turned to storytelling as a portal to connect her to Paula and as a method to sustain her own dwindling spirit.

The result was Paula, a book of two parts; the first written during the endless hours spent roaming hospital corridors, and the second a few years later when Allende was able to step back to look at her own life, the history of her family and her country, Chile. And Allende's need to sustain her spirit and distract her grief through storytelling has led now to The Sum of Our Days, the latest part of a memoir that began with Paula.

This most personal story is, superficially at least, written as a letter to her dead daughter. It begins with a description of the family gathering to scatter Paula's ashes in a park near Allende's Californian home, where her daughter used to go on romantic walks with her husband, Ernesto.

From this jumping-off point, Allende describes all that has happened since and how life has kept going, almost despite itself. A matriarch to her extending and intricate family, Allende is also someone who experiences life more richly than most, with her every experience overflowing with emotion.

Even her dreams are psychedelic kaleidoscopes and she believes them to give true meaning to her waking life. And she carries her passionate Chilean ideas and ideals of family as a tribe with her wherever she lives.

In this book, vivid descriptions of her husband, children and friends, or her "clan" as she refers to them, are laced with a real sense of honesty and, as she turns her writer's eye inwards on herself too, she certainly doesn't shy away from baring all her own flaws. Alongside the many fights and reconciliations within her extended family that are part of her daily life, she also highlights her tantrums, her see-sawing mood swings and her inability to resist any opportunity to meddle in the tangled lives around her.
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