Monday, May 03, 2010

Isabel Allende: Island Beneath the Sea

Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel
Gaiutra Bahadur reviews Isabel Allende's Island Beneath the Sea.
In literature as in art, the genre has been dominated by men. So critics devised the label “magical feminism” just for Isabel Allende’s multigenerational family chronicles featuring strong-willed women, usually entangled in steamy love affairs against a backdrop of war and political upheaval. These elements are all present in her latest novel, “Island Beneath the Sea,” which is set partly in late-18th-century Haiti. The protagonist, a mulatto slave named Zarité, is maid to a sugar planter’s wife who gradually goes mad. (The Caribbean seems to have had a reliably deranging effect on women in fiction, from “Jane Eyre” onward.) Even before her mistress’s death, Zarité becomes the concubine of her master, Valmorain, submitting to that role across decades and borders, even when he flees to New Orleans after the 1791 slave revolt.

The resulting canvas contains no less than the revolutionary history of the world’s first black republic as Allende portrays the island’s various factions: republicans versus monarchists, blacks versus mulattoes, abolitionists versus planters, slaves versus masters. She revels in period detail: ostrich-feathered hats, high-waisted gowns, meals featuring suckling pigs with cherries. Her cast is equally vibrant: a quadroon courtesan and the French officer who marries her; Valmorain’s second wife, a controlling Louisiana Creole; Zarité’s rebel lover, who joins Toussaint L’Ouverture in the hills. But for all its entertaining sweep, the story lacks complex characterization and originality. And its style is traditional. Where, you wonder, are the headless men — or, in ­Allende’s case, headless women? Where is the magical realism?
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An excerpt of the book is available at

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