16 June 2013

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

Thoughts and Reflections:
I was introduced to Isabel Allende through a random Ted Talk that I stumbled across. I immediately liked her wit and decided to look into her writing. When I got my hands on one of her books, I immediately recognised them cover art, though had never read one of her books before. I dove into the novel, ready for whatever its pages would bring.

I knew Allende was a known feminist, or at least a known commentator on things female. I wasn't sure what on the topic of women's rights the novel would bring or how overt her themes would be. Within pages I was completely drawn into the plot and the characters. The protagonist was female and the story talked of her life and revealed the many ways she displayed strength, even as a slave.

The story takes place in Haiti in its last years as a french colony, called Saint Domingue, and through its fight for independence. The story traces the life of a plantation owner, Valmoraine, but his story seemed to be written only for the purpose of providing context to the story of his slave, Zarite. The story follows Zarite from when she is bought at the age of nine by Valmoraine for the purpose of taking care of his new wife and follows Zarite into her own motherhood and eventual freedom from slavery.

A number of women characters feature in the novel, each one revealing a degree of independence and strength, both physically and mentally. The women, in whatever role they held from plantation slave to domestic slave to prostitute to mulatto kept wife all displayed strength and intelligence.

The issue of slavery is also discussed throughout the novel. Debates of the day are mentioned, both for and against slavery. I found it so interesting to hear the pro-slavery rhetoric and the degree to which people justified slavery. Reading it today, it seems incredible that people believed themselves. Allende, in her subtle ways, added insult to injury by juxtaposing the white population along side the blacks and mulattos and making them appear completely frivolous and ridiculous.

Racism, naturally, was another prevalent theme. Black, mulatto, and white each held a particular place in the day's society, largely unable to move in either directions socially purely based on the colour of their skin. The story of Rosette, Zarite's daughter, encapsulates this issue. Rosette is a mulatta born to Zarite by Valmorain. Being born to a slave, she was also a slave, but was raised alongside Valmorain's son, Maurice, and never understood her slavery and position in society. Her lack of awareness of the colour of her skin and what that meant for her results in a major dilemma, a dilemma which displays the balance of power in this society and how ridiculously the power is balanced. 

The power dynamic was continually displayed between men and women, as well as among classes and skin colours. Allende displays the powerlessness Zarite held in her world, despite being a strong and capable woman. There are only a few brief glimpses when circumstances change temporarily, allowing Zarite power over Valmorain.

Allende has a beautiful way of writing. Her style quickly draws the reader into the plot and the lives of the characters. She also has an incredible ability to talk about deep and interesting topics without smacking the reader over the head, leaving the reading questioning what the whole thing was all about, or leaving the reader depressed under the devastating realities of humanity and life.

I would absolutely recommend this novel and any of Allende's works.  I have added this book to my list of top recommendations, but would certainly recommend anything by her. Her writing is profound in a way that I have never encountered.

About the Author:
Isabel Allende was born in Chile in 1942. She has become a major force to be reckoned with in advocating for women's rights and empowerment. Here is a link to her website where she describes her own history in her own words.

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