Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Isabel Allende - A Long Petal of the Sea

In the late 1930s, civil war gripped Spain. When General Franco and his Fascists succeed in overthrowing the government, hundreds of thousands are forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life irreversibly intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must unite in a marriage neither of them wants, and together are sponsored by poet Pablo Neruda to embark on the SS Winnipeg along with 2,200 other refugees in search of a new life. As unlikely partners, they embrace exile and emigrate to Chile as the rest of Europe erupts in World War.
Starting over on a new continent, their trials are just beginning. Over the course of their lives, they will face test after test. But they will also find joy as they wait patiently for a day when they are exiles no more, and will find friends in the most unlikely of places. Through it all, it is that hope of being reunited with their home that keeps them going. And in the end, they will find that home might have been closer than they thought all along.

Comment: I borrowed this book recently and since I try to give the books back not too long after I get them, of course it had priority to others in the TBR.

In her most recent book, Isabel Allende takes the reader through a journey that encompasses several decades of the 20th century.
While explaining the events after the announcement of WWII through the perspective of Spanish people who are going as refugees to Chile while running from dictatorship in Spain, the author has managed to summarize many of the little dates that broaden to a segment of life in the century. From country to country, we can see one side of history that isn't very common in most books, but that has as much richness as any other and at the expense of so many lost dreams...

For those who have read the author's books before, this one is another piece of history wrapped up in a fictional tale. Through the lives of the main characters, Victor and Roser, we follow the events that forced them to leave Spain, to trust poet Pablo Neruda who convinced the Chilean government to accept the left-wing refugees and then, in Chile, to deal with and later on escape the military coup that forced the country into a dictatorship too.
It's true the end of the book is already set in the 90s, when democracy has returned but the richest part of the book is focused on how the world events shaped people's lives.

I'd say that, for a new reader, the author's style can look a little teaching, meaning that there's a sense there is a lesson to be learned, a message to be conveyed and often that is mostly centered on the author's own views or on the left side of things in the political spectrum.
All this is mixed up with fictional characters, but who embody the culture and the thinking of the time (with some avant garde ones of course) while trying to live their personal trials.

In some books I can quite easily focus on the fictional parts but I must say here, some sections did feel as if I was reading an history lesson. The balance between telling and showing clearly pends towards telling, as per the author's style but I don't feel bothered by that. Still, I think that comparing to the previous two books, for instance, which also have a big part of historical context in them, this felt a little more heavy on the history part. I don't mind it because it's a part of history that isn't as broadly dissected as other events set on the WWII years but it might look as if being too obvious for some readers.

Portuguese cover
Victor and Roser are fictional characters but they could have been anyone in those times. Their personalities are significant but what I liked about them the most is that I could see, through them, what could have been the existence of so many.
They are not strict or cartooned characters though; they have ideas and feelings and take actions that make them appear as human as anyone and I admit I even felt a little sentimental towards them, especially as the book was ending and they were already older people, after a long life of struggle and fighting for their beliefs and culture.

It's so easy to think about the countless, anonymous people who might have had the same experiences, who might have gone through the same ordeals or similar. Yes, I don't think this author is for everyone but if the style works for someone, then the story can be so much richer.
It's also a little bittersweet to go along the characters through some moments in history, knowing what happened in real life.

I think this book, if I had to use that example, could be divided 40-60 between fiction and historical context. I liked reading this, I liked spending time thinking about those characters and those history events but I can accept why others might not have liked it.
For me, it worked and I would recommend to anyone who likes historical fiction.
Grade: 8/10

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