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Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Isabel Allende

[Signature]Reviewed byMarlon JamesOf the many pitfalls lurking for the historical novel, the most dangerous is history itself. The best writers either warp it for selfish purposes (Gore Vidal), dig for the untold, interior history (Toni Morrison), or … see full wiki

Author: Isabel Allende
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Harper
1 review about Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel

Haiti's brutal history drives Allende's novel

  • Jul 27, 2010
The mulatto slave Zarité, known as Tété, and her owner, the French planter Toulouse Valmorain form the center of Allende's novel about slavery and the slave revolt that freed Haiti.

Valmorain came to the island at the age of 20, a rich noble anxious for a quick return to Paris. But the death of his father and the disarray of his sugar plantation make escape impossible, so Valmorain throws himself into making the property a success. His right hand man in this is the brutal overseer Prosper Cambray, feared by all.

Cambray lusts after Tété, Valmorain's wife's maid and soon, as the wife descends more deeply into madness, Valmorain's mistress and primary caretaker of his son. Tété's own son with Valmorain has been taken from her, she knows not where, and her lover, a young, proud African, runs off to join the rebels.

The first half centers on the brief, degraded lives of slaves on the island and the build-up to the slave revolt. Allende fills in a lot of political and emotional detail: the French Revolution so far away, the failed slave revolts of the past, the fears of the vastly outnumbered whites.

The second half takes Tété and Valmorain to Cuba, then New Orleans, as they flee Toussaint L'Ouverture's rebellion. Allende's historical focus is masterful, from the economic and intellectual views on slavery and slaves by landowners, to the remnants of African culture - like voodoo - that the slaves clung to.

The brutality is mindboggling, of course, and Allende goes into it in great detail. It's detail, actually, which makes this less than her best. So determined is she to get across the despicable history of slavery, she loses the individuals among the archetypes. She depicts Valmorain as a fairly liberal planter, although he rapes Tété at age 11 and considers her incapable of deep emotion. He is simply a man of his times and culture.

Tété is more complex, but still rather flat. The real life of the novel is slavery itself - the enormity of it as a force for evil. Allende successfully shows how slavery corrupted the thinking of whites and debased their values, how it changed the course of history in so many ways, seeped into the very fabric of the culture and how its legacy follows us still.

Allende's research is formidable and her passion infectious. Anyone interested in the birth of Haiti or the coming-of-age of New Orleans should enjoy Allende's thorough exploration.

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