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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel » User review

Haiti's brutal history drives Allende's novel

  • Jul 27, 2010
Rating:
+3
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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Lynn Harnett ()
Ranked #183
I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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[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 both (Jeannette Winterson). Allende, four years afterInes of My Soul, returns with another historical novel, one that soaks up so much past life that there is nowhere left to go but where countless have been. Opening in Saint Domingue a few years before the Haitian revolution would tear it apart, the story has at its center Zarité, a mulatto whose extraordinary life takes her from that blood-soaked island to dangerous and freewheeling New Orleans; from rural slave life to urban Creole life and a different kind of cruelty and adventure. Yet even in the new city, Zarité can't quite free herself from the island, and the people alive and dead that have followed her.Zarité's passages are striking. More than merely lyrical, they map around rhythms and spirits, making her as much conduit as storyteller. One wishes there was more of her because, unlike Allende, Zarité is under no mission to show us how much she knows. Every instance, a brush with a faith healer, for example, is an opportunity for Allende to showcase what she has learned about voodoo, medicine, European and Caribbean history, Napoleon, the Jamaican slave Boukman, and the legendary Mackandal, a runaway slave and master of black magic who has ...
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Details

ISBN-10: 0061988243
ISBN-13: 978-0061988240
Author: Isabel Allende
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Harper
First to Review
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