Island Beneath the Sea, by Isabel Allende (2010)
I was wary of reading another book by Allende. Her earlier style tended somewhat heavily to magical realism, which was very innovative when Gabriel García Márquez, a writer I adore, first started doing that back in the 1960’s. (Now the pendulum has swung and readers in Colombia want to read hyper-realistic novels like Jorge Franco’s Rosario Tijeras, which has all the subtlety of a Quentin Tarintino movie but is set in Bogotá where life really can be that violent.) I gave up halfway through Allende’s debut novel The House of the Spirits, but tried again with Inés of my Soul (2006), which I found merely decent but at least kept me interested with its setting of colonial South America as it followed the life story of Inés de Suárez. So, when a well-read friend recommended Island Beneath the Sea and mentioned that it was set in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue), Cuba, and New Orleans (then Nouvelle-Orleans) during the time of the French and Haitian revolutions and the Louisiana Purchase, it seemed worth reading.
I’ve long enjoyed well-researched historical fiction, and this one was in addition a good novel in its own right. We follow the lives of slaves, maroons, slave owners, and others through the inherent contradictions and injustices of a slave-holding society and watch as the world’s only successful slave revolt is born. Later, we see the multi-racial creole society of New Orleans trying to cope with its acquisition and attempted assimilation by the United States, something which was never truly accomplished. We meet Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian slave revolt, as he briefly allies with the government of the first French Republic to battle the white and mixed-race population of Saint-Domingue who remained largely loyal to the deposed French king (who had offered them greater political control), and Toussaint’s successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who formally declares the independence of the Republic of Haiti, then secretly sells his citizens into slavery to raise money for his government, which needs the cash to pay France the 150 million francs it demands as compensation for the loss of its slaves… suffice it to say, Allende’s heroine has been cursed to live in interesting times, and there’s plenty of material to frame a novel, though the focus always remains at a deeply personal and human level.
For me the real test of a book is whether I want to read more of an author’s works. In this case I see she’s written several young adult novels which received mixed reviews, which I’ll likely pass on, but I would read another of her later novels and would be happy if it were as good as this one.