November 11, 2010
"Island Beneath the Sea" - Isabel Allende Living up to her Reputation as a Compelling Storyteller.
I really liked the story, though I still wonder at the title " Island Beneath the Sea" or "La Isla Bajo El Mar", as it is called in its original Spanish version. Isabel Allende, as everyone knows, is charming with words, and in her recent novel "Island Beneath the Sea" she has spun a tale that strangleholds both your curiosity and your imagination. The reader is caught in a whirlpool of 'what next' and 'what if' and does not want an out.
I picked up this novel as a light read for my vacation, and it was a perfect fit. Allende tells the story of Tete, an ambitious, passionate, and undaunted slave girl of mixed race who faces a deluge of atrocities and injustice but always manages to resurface, only to take a breath and get swept over by another flood of challenges. The story unfolds during the time of the French Revolution in Saint Domingue, a Carribean island, and later moves to New Orleans.
Allende has all the right ingredients for a delightful romance. The novel is set in a historical period when slavery was rampant and pirates ruled the high seas. The protagonist is a strong and attractive slave who though raped at the age of 11 by her master Valmorain, finds romance, and friendship at almost every juncture. In Tete, Allende presents a multifaceted protagonist who inspires both awe and compassion. Tete in all her roles, whether as a servile concubine or a lusty lover, as a trusted friend or a vengeful slave, as a helpless victim or a shrewd mother, has the reader entranced. Ms. Allende, truly, is a master storyteller in that she can spin a web so tenuous yet so enticing that the reader suspends all his disbelief and lets himself be transposed into Allende's romantic escapade. Allende, a self proclaimed feminist, has a love for romance, and that becomes apparent in the way this novel unfolds; the fact that that she was a translator for Barbara Cartland romances earlier on in her career further reinforces this belief. There is also a distinct flavor of Georgette Heyer in this novel, and given that Ms. Heyer is often referred to as the queen of Historical Romance, a comparison to her is quite the compliment.
The title of the novel still puzzles me, somewhat reminiscent of Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea", but perhaps I am looking for a deeper connect that doesn't exist. Allende was simply drawing from Haitian Vodou to make her title sound mystical.
Ms. Allende admits that she "love(s) stories", and that everything else including historical accuracy, characterization, and setting are subservient to the storyline. She claims that as a writer she has no intention to 'preach' nor does she have any specific 'mission'. She has this urgent need to tell a story and so she weaves a web of characters, a setting, and some history around a story to bring it to life, and what a life she gives it! One that leaves the reader contented, much like a sumptuous meal that brings about a sense of satisfaction and well being. Having read Ms. Allende's "Island Beneath the Sea" made me feel just that.