Island Beneath the Sea

image of book cover, hardcover editionMy current read is Island Beneath the Sea, by Isabel Allende. I’m about halfway through it right now, and it is very different from what I expected.

Actually, I’m not sure what I expected. This is the first book I’ve ever read by Allende. I’ve always steered clear of her until now. I’m not sure why. I knew she was an award-winning writer of “magical realist” fiction. And I had this idea that her writing was on the highbrow side, like a Chilean Virginia Woolf. Not that I have anything against Virginia Woolf, but magical realism has never resonated with me for some reason, and the idea of an über-intellectual version of it resonates even less.

So I was a bit surprised to discover that this book is anything but highbrow. In fact, it’s pretty best-sellerish. It’s a historical novel about the slave uprising in Haiti that led to the country’s independence. It is gruesomely, unremittingly, violent. It features steamy jungles, voodoo, sugar plantations, slaves in chains, prostitutes, star-crossed lovers, obscenely rich Europeans, and mulattoes who always have a white father. It also has *pet peeve alert* entire chapters set in italics to indicate first-person narrative from the point of view of a slave girl.

The book I keep thinking of as I read this is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières. That is one of the best war novels I’ve ever read, despite the cheesy tacked-on happy ending. It has a lot in common with Island Beneath the Sea. Both are historical novels. Both are about the effect of war on ordinary “little” people. Both have scenes of unimaginable violence. Both have ensemble casts and could be described as “epic” or “sweeping.” But what I love in Corelli, and what I’m missing in Island, is a sense of humor. Not that there is anything remotely funny about either the slave uprising in Haiti or World War II. But de Bernières has a certain sympathy for all his characters, even the bad guys, that lets you enjoy their foibles even as you are gritting your teeth in anger.

Like I said, I’m only halfway through this book. If I change my mind after I finish it, I’ll come back and update this post.

Have you read anything by Isabel Allende? What did you think?

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  1. I have totally read something by Allende BUT it was ages ago. I mean, we’re talking freshman year of high school! I read Eva Luna, which I had to wiki to even remind myself of the story. It’s probably best if I get back into fiction, I read so much non-fiction (i.e., bios, auto-bios, art theory, art criticism, editorials, etc.) that I should allow myself that break. I definitely want to know what you think once you’ve finished the book. Wish I could contribute more but the last thing I read that qualifies as fiction is a graphic novel – Black Hole by Charles Burns! He’s an amazing graphic novelist. The last book I read that wouldn’t qualify as anything I’ve stated above – The Enlightened Life by Donald Rotherberg (He was my Dharma Teacher on a meditation retreat I went to last year).

    I just told you a bunch of stuff that was unnecessary, didn’t I? Yup. [Shoe gazing]. Basically, you make want to read more fiction! Thanks for the mid-way book review. Looking forward to what you think when you’re done.

  2. First, I am LOLing very hard at “shoe gazing.” That was the cutest thing ever!

    And second, let’s talk graphic novels! I can’t stand them and I’m not even sure why. I feel like I ought to like them because, you know, I do like to look at stuff. But (for example) my kiddos know better than to ask me to read comic books to them because I WILL NOT read anything with voice balloons. When I discovered that there was a graphic novel version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass I was really excited because I had loved that book, and I thought that if any graphic novel might have a chance with me, it would be that one. But no. It still drove me crazy! I think I just want to see paragraphs. I get huge pleasure from looking at a page of text, separate from reading it I mean. Does this make any sense at all? Can you give me some advice on how to approach graphic novels? Because I would like to like them.

  3. Mo, I love Allende. Zorro is my favorite; such adventure! About graphic novels, I refuse to read them aloud, which is tedious. (Also good motivation to learn to read.) But I enjoy them in silence. The Venetian’s Wife by Nick Bantock is on my “to read” list. I’ll let you know how I find it.

  4. I look forward to hearing about it, Kim. And I’m feeling more motivated to finish my Allende since writing this post. It’s been hard to find time to read since getting sucked into this postaday thing. *eyeroll*


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