A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing/Bloomsbury India
Historical Fiction, 336p
Rating: 3/5 stars
September 3, 1939, the day of the Spanish exiles’ splendid arrival in Chile, the Second World War broke out in Europe.
Victor Dalmau is a young doctor when he is caught up in the Spanish Civil War, a tragedy that leaves his life – and the fate of his country – forever changed. Together with his sister-in-law, the pianist Roser Bruguera, he is forced out of his beloved Barcelona and into exile.
When opportunity to seek refuge in Chile arises, they take it, boarding a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to the promised ‘long petal of sea and wine and snow’ over the seas. There, they find themselves enmeshed in a rich web of characters who come together in love and tragedy over the course of four generations, destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world.
A masterful work of historical fiction about hope, exile and belonging, A Long Petal of the Sea is Isabel Allende at the height of her powers.
About the author:
Isabel Allende is a Chilean-American novelist. Allende, who writes in the “magic realism” tradition, is considered one of the first successful women novelists in Latin America.
*Thank you Bloomsbury India for the review copy. All opinions are my own.
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende is a sweeping narrative told through the life and times of a doctor, Victor Dalmau who serves during the Spanish Civil War, his refuge in Chile till the political upheavals that overthrew Salvadore Allende and then his political exile to Venezuela. The historical setting cannot get more fascinating than the way it is set in the backdrop of political crisis across continents as well as the humane aspect of being refugees tossed in a new country and continent.
The writing though is a bit of a let down for it reads like an impersonal text rather than a powerful narrative about citizenship and belonging, about being uprooted and trying to settle in. As a reader, you might well tend to be underwhelmed even as you know that there should be more about the story and the characters, their dilemmas that ought to have left you touched.
Apart from the writing, there were certain strands that give little comfort. For one, the ode to Neruda whose efforts in evacuating people fleeing the Spanish Civil War who are given refuge in Chile is laudable but given the ongoing discussions following the #MeToo movement around the world, Neruda making a physical presence in the story as also every chapter starting with his poems is discomforting, given he raped his maid in Sri Lanka where he had a diplomatic post. The deification could well have been avoided.
There is little for the women characters to do in the book except to be at the mercy of events around them and the whims of the men in their family. Allende also brushes away the hand of the US that toppled Salvadore Allende, an extended family relation rather cursorily which is sad in a way. This can work for first time Allende readers but will make her fans in a quandary.