Isabel Allende is a great writer. A serious writer. A very profound and emotional writer. She hails from Chile, where her father, renowned and devoted activist Salvador Allende, tried to change the world but ended up losing his life instead. She is fascinated with the ideas of war and virtue, about dedication to one's country and the need to change it, to love in all its splendor and the raucous power of emotion gone wrong. Although she doesn't use much in the way of magic in her work, her books reflect a certain belief in the universe as a spirit with power that manipulates and frustrates the human puppets it places on earth.
In ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA, Allende looks at two people: a slave who grows into her own with a talent in voodoo, and Toulouse Valmorain, a young man who is trying to fit into society's predetermined characteristics of a successful young man. Both of their travails are difficult, and they find themselves drawn to and dependent upon each other for their survival in some very rough waters. The island of the title is Saint-Domingue, and Zarité --- known as Tété --- is "the daughter of an African mother she never knew and one of the white sailors who brought her into bondage." Tété finds solace from the daily horrors and fears of her childhood in the traditional rhythms of African drums as well as the voodoo loas she comes to be educated in by her fellow slaves.
Twenty-year-old Toulouse Valmorain comes to Saint-Dominigue in 1770. It's as if he's a contemporary financier who is coming to Manhattan to become a billionaire. With a bevy of powdered wigs in his baggage, he comes to run his father’s plantation, Saint Lazare. The work is hard, more difficult than he could have been prepared to expect. For eight years, he works his tail off, also trying to find the perfect mate for the perfect marriage, which proves much harder than he could have imagined. Of course, there are complications where Tété is involved --- his dependence on her frightens him and makes some of his choices harrowing. Tété is also determined to find her own true love, and so ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA ponders their futures over four very different decades.
It becomes clear that Allende has an axe to grind in terms of "love" --- finding it, holding on to it, and treating it right are all so hard on their own. But add slavery into the mix, and brutality, and the sense that you are a product that belongs to another human being, and you end up with a wicked soup that proves, in the end, to show that love, really and truly, can save the day. Tété creating and honing her own identity is integral to the central values of love and what it has to offer.
And so ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA is a tale of poetics and cruelty. and how the two together can often coalesce into something like a diamond --- sharp but shining, an example of the hard fight won. Allende just keeps getting better, and this epic will surely find its way into many a summer tote bag.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 22, 2011
Island Beneath the Sea