This is a warning to all of my faithful review readers out there. I am guilty of more than a little hero worship when it comes to Isabel Allende. She could write “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy brown dog,” and I’d think it was genius. I’ve read many of her books, both in English and Spanish, and I’d have to place her among my very favorite authors. Island Beneath the Sea is one of her more recent publications and I didn’t have to know a thing about it to know that I’d love it. True to form, Allende doesn’t disappoint. Luscious, Lyrical, Mythical, Epic, Sweeping, Romantic, Tragic, Thrilling, Uplifting, Thought-provoking, Sexy, Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful is how I’d describe Allende’s books. When I read Allende, I can almost hear the orchestra soundtrack in the background, and taste wine and ripe fruit on my lips.
Allende herself is quite interesting; a Peruvian-born Chilean with US citizenship and family ties to the coup-ousted Chilean President, Salvador Allende, she could easily be a character in some of her own novels. Check out her Wikipedia listing and be prepared to be impressed. I read her first novel, The House of the Spirits in 1994 and it remains, to this day, one of my all-time favorite books—I’ve read that book both in Spanish and English. I’ve also read The Stories of Eva Luna (in Spanish), The Infinite Plan, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia and My Invented Country (non-fiction) by Allende.
Island Beneath the Sea is a sweeping saga. It is the story of Zarité Sedella, born into slavery on the island of Saint-Dominigue, the French colony that would later become Haiti. It takes place in Saint-Domingue, Cuba and Louisiana and spans 30+ years of Zarité’s life from childhood slavery through love and loss and tragedy and war and freedom and triumph.
Ratings (For an explanation of my rating factors, please visit the Rating System Key page.)
Crack Factor – 8.5. The story moves quickly in this book, but, I read 3 other books between the time I started this book and when I finished it, so It did take 2nd place to The Fiery Cross, Oryx and Crake and The Jane Austen Book Club. So…it’s still awesome, but not as addicting as they were.
Distraction Factor 9. I kept coming back to one of the concepts Allende repeated in the story. Zarité would ask one of her fellow slaves, who had access to travel, why it was that she didn’t escape to freedom? Her reply was something like…what good would it do for me to be free when no one else here is? She came back to it again, when one character is planning to free his father’s slaves upon inheritance, but his teacher says…what good will that do if it doesn’t abolish slavery completely? 200 people that cannot support themselves are not going to right any wrongs; it’s better to work toward changing the whole system, and in that conversation, he created an abolitionist. This idea intrigued me, because I often think, even a small thing can change the world, but Allende seemed to say that a small thing didn’t matter in the scope of a big problem. Food for thought, anyway…I’m still thinking about it.
Tears Shed Factor – 8. Zarité’s character is a caregiver. She mothers many people, not limited to her own children. Now that I am a parent, mother stories affect me more. It was the mother/child parts that resonated with me the most, both the happy and sad parts.
Enrichment Factor – 9. I knew almost nothing about the colonial Caribbean. It was a unique backdrop to a great story and I almost want to check out a book on 18th century Haiti just to learn more. It was also fascinating to think of the Louisiana Purchase from the perspective of the French citizens being sold by Napoleon…as a US citizen, I’d never thought of that before.
PeopleFactor – 9.9. Allende’s characters are full-formed, including the antagonists. You understand her bad guys just as much as you understand her heroine. She doesn’t always let you keep your favorite characters, but she often gives you reason to nod in satisfaction as the antagonists reap the consequences of their actions.
Story Telling Factor – 9.5. This is a captivating tale. It is well plotted and planned and thoroughly enjoyable.
Writing Skills Factor – 9.5. Allende writes in Spanish, which is a very picturesque language. Even through translation, she is incredibly visual in her style. It makes for very rich prose.
Bad Ass Babe Factor – 8.5. Zarité is a great character with serious courage. She has many difficult choices to make throughout the course of her life, and I was impressed with how she dealt with many of those difficult choices.
Total Rating – 8.99