A 'sepia' portrait no doubt! Isabel Allende once again rakes up a history to bring focus to a blurry present; this time to the identity of Aurora De Valle, alias Lai Ming, the photographer protagonist of Allende's 2001 novel Portrait in Sepia, originally written in Spanish and translated into English by Margaret Sayers.
Allende's last novel that I read, My Invented Country, was an amazing journey into nostalgia, however, this time even though Allende's heroine embarks on a journey into her past, the revelations that it brings are certainly not nostalgic. It is a flagellation of sorts that tears up the protagonist in more ways than one. Does that make the novel a tragedy? Well, that's for you to read and figure out...
Aurora's journey of self realization takes her across continents: China, USA, and Chile, and it is to Allende's credit that she weaves a historical/social context around each of these settings. For instance, China Town in California, the home of Aurora's maternal grandparents, is also the setting for flesh trade and child prostitution. Chile, where Aurora grows into womanhood, is embroiled in military aggression against Peru and Bolivia; suffering and death are a permanent backdrop in Aurora's canvas.
As for the title of the novel, one which piqued me no end... 'sepia' apparently is a "brassy antique color-effect, characteristic of old photographs". It is therefore, no wonder, that Allende titled Aurora's voyage of self discovery as a Portrait in Sepia. Given Aurora's passion for photography combined with her dire need to find herself, the title becomes a perfect fit. Were it a painting instead of a novel, the yellowish brown tone, the sepia, would intensify as Aurora delved deeper into her past; after all it's our heritage, our past , that lends hue, color, and dimension to our present. Also, a sepia portrait holds a mysterious, old-world charm, and I think in this novel that was Allende's intention, "because things are so ambiguous in that sense, so delicate and so unfocused...You don't have to decide anything. Things just are, and you somehow float or ... you are just there. In a very, very delicate form", quite like a portrait in sepia.
Isabel Allende's Portrait in Sepia reads like any decent historical romance, and it will, perhaps, not make it into the category of 'Great Literature', but anyone who enjoys reading will not regret having picked this one up.