Ever since her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits became a surprise international blockbuster, Isabel Allende has been that rarest of people: a foreign-language author whose books sell well in the United States. She's not the only one, of course — most recently, novelists like the late Stieg Larsson have found success in America — but for the most part, U.S. best-seller lists aren't exactly crowded with translated literature.
Allende's appeal hasn't just been her fascinating biography — she grew up in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Lebanon, and was the cousin of deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende — but also her lyrical, enchanting narrative style, at times a kind of Day-Glo version of magical realism. Her prose isn't for everyone; she doesn't shy away from the florid and the dramatic. But readers who have been entranced by her considerable storyteller's charm will find a lot to admire in Island Beneath the Sea, her latest novel.
Like The House of Spirits and her underrated Ines of My Soul, Island Beneath the Sea is a sprawling, multifaceted historical epic. The novel follows a young woman born into slavery, Tete, and her master, Toulouse Valmorain, through two countries, over several years. Valmorain, a young Frenchman who has moved to Haiti to manage his father's sugar plantation, first buys Tete in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), where she was born to an African woman and one of her white enslavers. Valmorain uses Tete for sex; she eventually gives birth to his daughter, and the two develop a complicated, somewhat troubled relationship. After the beginning of the slave revolts that would lead to the Haitian Revolution, Valmorain and Tete move to New Orleans; he plans to get a new plantation, and she pines for the freedom her master has promised her.
Island Beneath the Sea isn't Allende's greatest work, but she handles a difficult issue with, for the most part, considerable restraint and grace. Allende isn't, and never has been, a terribly subtle writer — her plots are typically markedly dramatic, and her characters often wear their motivations and emotions on their sleeves. But she's a little more reined in than usual here, despite a few ornate phrasings that might have lost something in translation ("Meanwhile, the French Revolution had hit the colony like the slash of a dragon's tail ... ").
While Allende has always been comfortable chronicling grand passion and deep love, she's at her best here when she's angry — her descriptions of the treatment of Valmorain's slaves, particularly the sexual assault of Tete, are shocking. At its best, Island Beneath the Sea is elegant, moving and infused with a real sense of loss: "Many years have gone by and blood keeps running, soaking the soul of Haiti," Tete writes, "but I am not there to weep."