Book Review: “Portrait in Sepia” by Isabel Allende

 

 

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My Reading Challenge for November, was to read a book by a writer from the southern hemisphere. The reason for this was to try to distract me from any midwinter misery! As I write this, the light dusting of snow which made everything look so pretty these last few days, has given way to a persistent rain and I feel plunged into dark greyness once again. I swear it stayed night until about 11am today! Less than two weeks to the Winter solstice and we can start to look forward to longer days again.

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Stunning front cover

Chilean author Isabel Allende has to be one of the finest writers alive today. As in most of her books, the central characters are strong females. This novel tells the story of Aurora del Valle, who was born in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1880. Her mother was a spectacularly beautiful but fatally naïve young woman, Lynn Sommers, who was duped into sleeping with the wealthy and wayward Matias Rodriguez de Santa Cruz. Lynn is the daughter of Eliza Sommers, and Matias the son of Paulina del Valle. Both these women were central characters in the forerunner to this book, Daughter of Fortune. Severo del Valle, Matias’s cousin, marries Lynn to spare her honour (though the marriage is never consummated) and becomes Aurora’s legal guardian. Lynn dies from a haemorrhage just after her daughter is born so when Severo returns to Chile to fight in the war he leaves the child in the care of her maternal grandparents, Eliza and her husband Tao Chi’en. Aurora spends her first five years with them, happy and much-loved. When Tao Chi’en dies, Eliza fulfils a promise to return her husband’s body to his native China and leaves the child with her paternal grandmother, the indomitable Paulina del Valle. Paulina agrees to this on the basis that Eliza sever all ties with the child.

Thus, Aurora grows up with Paulina and the rest of the story follows her life, from her early years growing up amidst the pomp and wealth of her voracious grandmother’s vast household, such a contrast from the modest life she led in Chinatown, through to her early adulthood as the family moves to Chile. Allende gives a stunning account of the Chilean civil war, and the effect this had on the family, particularly Severo del Valle, who has now married his cousin Nivea, and with whom he goes on to have fifteen children. Nivea is another strong woman in the book, an idealist with fierce views on women’s rights, who does not let childbirth get in the way of her campaigning. She is devoted to Severo and their marriage provides a powerful model of spousal partnership for Aurora. Her grandmother Paulina is also a strong role model, teaching her about business and about feminine power.

In the latter part of the book, the adult Aurora becomes a photographer and enters into a disastrous marriage with Diego Dominguez. Lacking the wilfulness of Paulina and the inner confidence of Eliza, Aurora’s life is miserable, stuck on a farm in a rural part of Chile with a husband who does not love her. She feels as if her fate is not in her own hands.

The novel is classic Allende, an epic saga, covering the period 1862 (before Aurora’s birth) to 1910 with a beautifully drawn cast of characters. Yet despite its scale, the novel digs deep into the human condition – what it is to love and be loved, romantic love, marriage, the love between child, parent and grandparent, blood ties, and the pain and the pleasure that family can bring. The meaning of the title is cryptic, but it is revealed beautifully by the author at the end, in such a way that made me want to go straight back and read it all again! It’s a novel to get lost in, and Allende has this immense talent for drawing the reader in to the extraordinary world she creates.

A flawless book, highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How does it compare with Allende’s other works?

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Book review: “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

I read this for my August reading challenge, which was to choose a book, the title or cover of which was reminiscent of summer. I chose On Chesil Beach because I love Dorset, possibly my favourite county in England, and I love Chesil Beach, which we visited on a family holiday about three years ago. Chesil Beach is one of those fascinating geographical features, dating back to Jurassic times, which reminds you that human habitation on earth is a mere blip in time. It’s an 18-mile stretch of shingle beach, separated from the mainland by a saline lake called the Fleet Lagoon, and formed thousands of years ago as deposits of sediment were plopped near to the coastline, but not on the beach, so creating a ‘barrier beach’ separated from the actual coastline. It’s a haven for wildlife as well as being one of those mysterious oddities that Wessex (yes, I’m a huge fan of Thomas Hardy!) does so well.

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The front cover of On Chesil Beach shows a picture of a woman in a white dress walking along the beach at what appears to be either dawn or dusk. She is walking away from us, into a vague distance. The sky is grey-blue, twilit, with a slash of brightness from the emerging or receding sun. In the far distance are cliffs and the sea on either side of the beach is grey, somewhat forbidding. The skirt of the woman’s dress, and her hair, are blowing in towards the land; there is clearly a strong breeze coming in from the sea. This image is everything I love about the English coast. It reminds me that nature is in charge here, that the earth will prevail. This area is part of Dorset’s Jurassic coast where fossils are easily found and where there is much evidence of the prehistoric past. It is a humbling place to be.

Chesil Beach is the setting of McEwan’s moving, domestic tragedy. Set in the summer of 1962 it begins in a hotel where Edward and Florence are having dinner in their suite on their wedding night. The awkwardness, the tension and the weight of expectation are apparent from the outset, and the detail with which McEwan describes every aspect of the scene made me feel like I was living every excruciating moment of the evening in real time. It is clear very quickly that this is a book about sex. It’s 1962 so the couple have not yet experienced the benefits of the sexual liberation of the 1960s and are still victims of the much more staid post-war attitudes of the 1950s. Despite being newlyweds, and therefore supposed to be a happy young couple, it is clear very early on that each is in a very different place; it is apparent that they have had little intimacy, sexual or otherwise, prior to their wedding. Edward has been ‘patient’ assuming that all will be well once they are married, while Florence has been hoping simply for strength, that she will be able to endure what she thinks will an unpleasant duty once within the confines of marriage.

“They separately worried about the moment, some time soon after dinner, when their new maturity would be tested, when they would lie down together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to one another. For over a year, Edward had been mesmerised by the prospect that on the evening of a given date in July the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman. How this was to be achieved without absurdity, or disappointment, troubled him…..But what troubled her was unutterable, and she could barely frame it for herself. Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.”

And therein lies the nub of the whole book really, how these inner truths reveal themselves, how the pleasant mask of their love begins to crumble and how the relationship is affected under the pressure of these problems.

The book is structured in five parts: the first part is the awful wedding night, subsequent parts provide the back story to Edward and Florence’s relationship, their early lives and their very different backgrounds – class difference plays a big part in the novel too and whilst this is not named as an explicit barrier between them, you get the sense as a reader of her as more refined, affluent, uptight, middle-class, while he is seen as ultimately more vulgar, preoccupied by earthier matters and that this is somehow a consequence of his socially humble background.

I don’t wish to spoil the ending for you if you haven’t read the book, but the final part, the denouement, takes place on Chesil Beach itself, as the two individuals encounter one another at the climax of their so far bitter wedding night experience. It is like a classical scene, like a game of chess as the two manoeuvre around their respective problems. It is a very fine, forensic study of a 1960s relationship that could barely be called a relationship.

A stunning read, which I didn’t expect to be so good. Highly recommended.

(Apologies for any typos I haven’t spotted – my daughter’s hamster gave me a nasty bite on the middle finger of my right hand it has badly affected my typing!)

If you have read this book, what did you think?

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