Book review: A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

A Long Petal of the Sea, admirably translated from the Spanish by Nick Caister and Amanda Hopkinson, is an agreeably old-fashioned novel. There is nothing clever or tricksy about it, and, though it is set mostly in Chile, there is no pretentious and tiresome magic realism. Instead we have an easy-flowing narrative and credible characters. It’s the kind of novel that used to be more common than it is now, reminding me of good, if for the most part forgotten, novelists of the mid-20th century such as RC Hutchinson and Thomas Armstrong.
Isabel Allende PIC: Daniel Roland / AFP via Getty ImagesIsabel Allende PIC: Daniel Roland / AFP via Getty Images
Isabel Allende PIC: Daniel Roland / AFP via Getty Images

The first section is set in Spain during the civil war as seen from Catalonia and the Republican side. The two main characters are Victor Dalmau, a medical student working as a doctor in the Republican army, and Roser Bruguera, a peasant girl rescued from poverty when her musical talent is recognized. She is then brought up in the Dalmau family – father a musician and academic, mother a teacher. She will fall in love with Victor’s brother, Guillem, a soldier. She is pregnant when Guillem is killed and the Republican Front collapses. There is a vivid account of the mass retreat through the Pyrenees and their arrival as refugees in France, where Victor is held in a concentration camp.

All this is well done, but probably not new to many readers. Victor and Roser and her baby are able to escape Europe before the Second World War, getting to Chile on a refugee ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, then attached to the Chilean embassy in Paris. Victor and Roser are now married. It is at first a marriage of convenience, for Roser still doesn’t know that Guillem is dead, but it will endure, despite diversions and infidelities. One of the best things in the novel is Allende’s treatment of this relationship.

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The picture of Chile in the 20 years after the war, with its division between the rich, conservative, devoutly Catholic upper class, a liberal or Communist intelligentsia and an impoverished peasantry and urban working-class, is fascinating, if at times sketchy and politically biased. It leads to the Socialist experiment and the presidency of Salvador Allende (a cousin of the author’s grandfather). Victor, now a distinguished cardiologist, plays chess regularly with Allende. The brutal military coup is portrayed in all its horror. British and American conservatives who approved of it should surely feel ashamed when they read the account of it here.Victor’s friendship with the socialist president marks him as a subversive dissident and he is consigned, for the second time in his life, to a concentration camp. When he is released, after a slightly improbable action, he is able to join Roser in Venezuela, then – the ironies of history – a rich liberal democracy.

The last, more tranquil section of the novel explores old age and unties some narrative knots, allowing for what may pass as a happy ending.
The leading characters are fictional, though Victor is, as a prefatory note indicates, based on a friend of the author. This is a historical novel, faithful to Spanish and Chilean history. It has therefore a double interest. It’s a story of personal relations with some comic sidelights, but it is also inescapably a political novel too. The lives of the principal characters have been governed, even distorted, by public events over which they have no control. Actors and free people in their immediate personal lives, they have also been subjected to historical forces. They make their lives as best they can, but they are also victims of ideologically-driven politics.

This is a novel of absorbing interest and reads very easily. It will please readers who delight in family sagas, but also those who are interested in the history and political divisions of the 20th century. For the most part these are fairly and judiciously represented, even though Allende’s leftist or liberal prejudices are evident. That said, she is generally fair. The excesses of the Left in both Spain and Chile are admitted, presented in such a way as to allow the reader to understand the reasons for the harsh and murderous reaction they provoked. Allan Massie

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende, Bloomsbury, 314pp, £16.99