A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

“The long petal of sea and wine and snow” is how the poet Pablo Neruda once described Chile, the country in which most of Isabel Allende’s latest novel is set, and Neruda himself plays a small but very important role in this epic story, based on true historical events.

Beginning in Spain in 1938, we meet Victor Dalmau, a young medical student from Barcelona, and Roser Bruguera, an orphan who has been taken in and raised by the Dalmau family. Roser is in love with Victor’s brother Guillem and is pregnant with his child, but like many others, they have their plans for the future destroyed by the civil war which is currently tearing Spain apart. Victor and Roser are Republicans, but when it becomes clear that General Franco and his Nationalists have won the war, they join half a million other refugees crossing the border into France in search of safety. It is here that they learn of Pablo Neruda’s plan to commission a ship, the Winnipeg, to transport two thousand of the refugees to Chile, where they will have a chance to build a new life. The only problem is, while Victor is offered a place on the ship due to his medical training, Roser’s skills are less in demand and she will only be allowed to join him if she can prove she is his wife…

A Long Petal of the Sea is the second book I’ve read by Isabel Allende. My first was The Japanese Lover and although I was disappointed by that one, I wanted to give her another chance to impress me. Sadly, I felt very much the same about this book and am coming to the conclusion that, despite her popularity, Allende is just not an author for me.

The story itself is fascinating. I have read very little about the Spanish Civil War and knew nothing about what happened in the aftermath, with Spanish refugees being placed in concentration camps on their arrival in France. I knew even less about the political history of Chile, which is the focus of the second half of the novel. I think My Beautiful Imperial by Rhiannon Lewis is the only other book I’ve read set in that country – but that story took place in a much earlier period than this one. It’s sad to think that refugees like Victor and Roser, who had already been through so much, would settle in Chile thinking they had found peace and safety, only to face more upheaval with the 1973 military coup and then years of dictatorship under General Pinochet.

My problem with this book was the style in which it was written. As with The Japanese Lover, I felt as though I was reading a long list of facts rather than a compelling story. I found it impossible to care about or engage with the characters because the author was just telling me how people thought and felt instead of showing me through their words and actions. This should have been a moving and emotional novel but instead I thought it was dry and impersonal and seemed much more like non-fiction than fiction.

I’m aware that Isabel Allende has a large and loyal fan base and other reviews of this book are overwhelmingly positive, so it’s obvious that I’m just not the right reader for Allende’s books. I’ve tried two now and I don’t think I need to try any more, but if you think this book sounds interesting don’t let me put you off reading it – you might be able to connect with it in a way that for some reason I just couldn’t.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Chilean author Isabel Allende is probably best known for her first novel The House of the Spirits, but since its publication in 1982 she has written over twenty other books, most recently last year’s In the Midst of Winter. The Japanese Lover (2015) is the first one I’ve read; I was drawn to it by its wartime setting and by the fact that, unlike some of her other books, it didn’t seem to include any magical realism, of which I’m not really a fan.

The novel opens in the present day with Irina Bazili, a young woman from Moldova, starting a new job at Lark House, a home for the elderly in San Francisco. Irina soon settles in, getting to know the old people in the home and forming a special bond with one of them, a woman called Alma Belasco who is able to live independently on the ground floor of the building but knows the day could soon come when she no longer can. When Irina is introduced to Seth, Alma’s grandson, the two are united in their concern for Alma and their curiosity over her occasional disappearances from Lark House. Eventually they piece together the story of Alma’s life, but this only happens gradually over the course of the entire novel.

When I first read the synopsis for this book I assumed it was a dual timeline novel with two alternating stories – Irina’s in the present day and Alma’s in the past. Well, it is, but not in the same way as dual timeline novels written by authors like Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton or Susanna Kearsley, for example. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a book with two distinct storylines, but more like a book set in the present with some chapters describing events from Alma’s past.

And Alma is a character with a very interesting past. At the beginning of the Second World War, she is sent away from her native Poland to stay with rich relatives in San Francisco and here she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener. As time goes by, Alma and Ichimei begin to fall in love, but when war finds its way to America and the Japanese become ‘the enemy’, the Fukudas are sent to an internment camp. The two young lovers are later reunited, only to be separated again, a pattern which will repeat itself several times over the decades and their relationship will endure despite Alma’s marriage to another man. It is this relationship which Irina and Seth find so intriguing and which they hope to learn more about.

Although I struggled to believe in the love Alma and Ichimei felt for each other (I couldn’t sense much passion between them and, for me, it just wasn’t the heartbreaking romance I thought it should have been, given the setting and subject), I did find it interesting to read about the injustices suffered by the Fukuda family, their time in the internment camp, and the racial, cultural and class barriers that stood in the way of Ichimei and Alma’s happiness. However, Allende does not just focus on this storyline; she also delves into Irina’s background and those of some of the other characters, touching on a huge number of issues such as child abuse, homosexuality, pornography, drug use and abortion. All things which are relevant to modern life, but the book was not really long enough to explore them in much depth.

I found plenty of things to like about this book, but there were times when I felt that I was reading a long string of facts and information rather than an engaging story – too much ‘telling instead of showing’ – and there’s also not much dialogue, which could explain why I found it difficult to connect with Alma and Ichimei. I was slightly disappointed, but it’s possible that I just chose the wrong Isabel Allende book to begin with. I know she has a lot of fans who love her writing, so I’m hoping that if I try another of her books I’ll understand why.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing a nationality.