Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits (Chile)

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“When they said goodbye, Blanca and Pedro Tercero kissed each other on the mouth. It was the first time Alba had seen that in her life, because no one around her was in love.”

The House of the Spirits is a multi-generational tale of love, revolution, family, and…spirits. Set in an unnamed Latin American country, it begins with young Clara, who eventually becomes old Clara, mother of Blanca and grandmother of Alba. The story revolves around the relationships between these three women, and their often messy relationships with Clara’s husband Esteban.

I admittedly finished this book quite a while ago. In fact, I’ve already finished my next book for this blog, which at times I read specifically to procrastinate writing this post. When I read the children’s book I had memories, personal attachment and differences in response from then to now that I could draw on when writing, and now not so much. But! Onwards and upwards.

HOTS is of course set in quite a different time and place than I have any real comprehension of. It reminded me in many respects of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, (which may be the only other Latin American based book I’ve read to be honest). They shared the same intense family dynamics and focus on both love and passion. But unlike LWFC, a sharp feeling of culture shock struck me while reading this book. Or maybe it wasn’t culture, just shock, particularly when it came to rape, for two reasons. For one thing, growing up in suburban Canada my concept of rape is something much more surreptitious and much less brazen than Esteban’s – someone could spike your drink, or just wait until you’re sufficiently drunk to assault you (ie Veronica Mars or Speak). When it comes to rape in North America, there’s certainly a lot of (undue) emphasis on self-protection, whereas Esteban literally just swept in and raped whomever he felt like – there was no sense that it could be prevented.

I also had difficulty accepting was how openly he did this while his character was still revered in so many ways. “In the course of the next ten years, Esteban Trueba became the most respected patron in the region.” And yet, barely half a page later, it reads, “Not a girl passed from puberty to adulthood that he did not subject to the woods, the riverbank, or the wrought-iron bed.” Even Clara, an admirable character in many ways, is happy to marry him despite this knowledge. I guess this should be less surprising – the “free pass” given to a variety of celebrities following offenses (R. Kelly is one debate at the moment) makes it clear that in my own society, power and money can excuse a number of sins.

Apart from the occasional brothel visit, Esteban gives up these pursuits once married to Clara, which occurs fairly early on. But evidently, minor plot points can carry the greatest weight. Similarly, Esteban’s sister Ferula felt like such a dominating presence throughout the book, but in reality (spoiler!) she dies about a third of the way in.

One other thought – I appreciated the ambiguity of the country. Maybe it’s the history major in me but anytime something is “based on a true story” be it book, film, play, etc. I immediately need to know to what extent it actually is true – the blurring of fact and fiction eats away at me. I enjoyed taking this purely as a story that could have happened, but didn’t.  

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