Island Beneath the Sea
By Isabel Allende
(Harper; 457 pages; $26.99)
For 28 years, Isabel Allende has given us books that fling their arms open, gather up history and offer it back to us in a wide embrace. From the Chilean dictatorship to the California Gold Rush, her previous novels have brought bygone epochs to life by peopling them with exuberant passions, strong heroines and intricate plots that knot together a vivid cast of characters. Now, with "Island Beneath the Sea," she returns with a novel that carries us to the late 18th century, to the heart of slavery and the Haitian revolution.
The story centers on Zarité, a slave in Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti) and her long struggle for freedom against all odds. At the age of 9, she is sold to Toulouse Valmorain, a Frenchman who reluctantly inherited a plantation when his father succumbed to syphilis. His own feelings toward slavery range from ambivalence and revulsion to defensive resignation, and he attempts to keep his hands clean by giving a brutal overseer reign over the fields.
Zarité becomes the personal slave of Valmorain's wife, a fragile Spaniard who slowly succumbs to madness, convinced that the drums and rituals of the slaves are causing her collapse. Valmorain forces Zarité into sexual servitude, resulting in a convoluted family web that only tangles further as the years pass and a range of offspring emerge.
We meet many more characters, such as Violette, the mulatta courtesan who leverages men's obsessions to carve an independent life; Etienne Relais, a white army commander who flouts cultural norms to forge a mixed-race family; Gambo, a young slave raised to be a warrior in Africa, drawn to the rebellion that would separate him from his beloved; Tante Rose, an herbal healer and voodoo mambo, or priestess, who brings her cures to slaves and runaways alike; and Permentier, a physician who seeks out Tante Rose as a teacher, convinced that her power to heal outstrips French medicine.
The narrative sprawls and leaps, reaching ambitiously at its own horizon, tracing social upheavals from the distant French Revolution to the Haitian slave rebellion in all its brutality and chaos, to a New Orleans fomenting with cultural change. In the end, it is the next generation - those born into the tangled web - who will define and culminate the story with their lives and loves, their unprecedented attempts to transcend societal limitations.
Allende is an unabashed romantic, which makes for an engaging read, but also means that characters are sometimes seen through a softened lens. The black women in this book are marvelously strong, which, while admirable, at times glosses over the full brunt of their circumstances.
And while many white characters' racism and hypocrisy are laid bare, those who support black rights do so with a moral clarity that feels anachronistic. This is not an unflinching, razor-sharp portrait of slavery in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Patrick Chamoiseau or Edward P. Jones. Rather, this is slavery mixed with fairy tale, a world as enchanted - and enchanting - as it is brutal and unjust.
This is a risky undertaking; however, Allende manages to carry it on the sheer strength of her compassion for the characters. This book is, after all, no "Gone With the Wind": It is deeply invested in the humanity of enslaved people, and does not shy away from describing horrors. Captured runaways are tortured. Mothers kill their babies to spare them pain. In a particularly haunting scene, a group of slaves, traumatized by the Middle Passage, attempts to throw themselves overboard rather than spend a single night in a ship's hold.
Zarité herself suffers endless humiliations, ranging from the subtle to the abject. Through all of this, she draws strength from the loa, the spirits of the African religion of voodoo, particularly Erzulie, the loa of love and motherhood whose name becomes a melodic refrain throughout the book. Refreshingly, the portrayal of this long-maligned religion is both respectful and accurate, unlike the vast majority of its appearances in film and literature. In "Island Beneath the Sea," voodoo receives its due place as a rich mystery tradition, a source of spiritual sustenance for a people torn from their African roots.
This spiritual thread affirms the essential dignity of Allende's portrayal; her enterprise is to lift up what has been trodden down, to expose its beauty to the light. She propels the reader through great atrocities on the momentum of page-turning drama, and, in so doing, creates a unique, accessible entry point to histories that deserve to be told.
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