fiction, review

The House of the Spirits

Indonesian edition’s cover (source:

Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits was my very first introduction to Latin American literature. I was quite in awe when I first went into it, and by the middle of the book, I felt sure that I had fallen for it. First published in 1982, The House of the Spirits is, hands down, one of the most notable works not only in the realm of Latin American literature, but also modern literary world in general. It has everything it takes to become a splendid, unforgettable work, namely uniqueness and profundity.

The House of the Spirits opens with a peculiar narration introducing Clara, a ten-year-old girl of some large, prominent family. However, it’s not particularly her the whole first chapter is talking about, but her elder sister, the mermaid-like, gloriously beautiful Rosa. Through a whimsical description of the little Clara, Allende weaves her magic and slowly brings out Rosa into view. Later, as the narrative picturing Rosa and the entire del Valle family develops, we come to meet the main male character who will be the machine of the story throughout the book, Esteban Trueba, Rosa’s loving fiancé. The tragic end of his painfully brief engagement to Rosa brings Trueba to mourning, being unable, as he claims, to feel love anymore. Desperate and broken-hearted, Trueba distracts himself by trying to focus on making money, especially after leaving his mining job earlier. So he comes back to his ancestor’s abandoned land, Tres Marías, examining it with a critical eye and deciding that it has the potential to become a prosperous field. To that end, he rolls his sleeves and gets back to work, setting himself up as the landlord and doing everything in his power to achieve his deep-rooted ambition. But the success of a son is never enough for a mother, for it is a sure thing that a mother would like to see her son get married right and proper. So at his mother’s request, Trueba starts to seek a proper wife, and the twist of fate brings him to Clara, Rosa’s little sister. Clara, the clairvoyant, has already known for quite some time that she will one day marry her sister’s former fiancé, and that her marriage to Esteban Trueba will lead to an unavoidable disaster. From then on, the story of the Trueba family involves so many horrible events that bear evidence of what Clara has predicted all along.

The character of Esteban Trueba sort of draws the reader’s sympathy and hatred at the same time. While his loving nature and hard-working persistence are unmistakable, his evil deeds and his endless arrogance and desire for power seem to me too much to bear. He is such a fantastic creation of a character, mean yet tender, strong yet vulnerable, tyrannical yet pitiful. What he does and how he behaves as a landlord and a politician show flagrantly the one side of him, while his forever love for Clara and his limitless affection for his granddaughter Alba vividly prove the other. He is, in my opinion, the perfect other half for Clara, who is so quiet and indifferent, yet so determined and having so much care for others. I cannot say that they are a romantic couple, but the unique bond between them is so touching and so natural. Their daughter Blanca seems to be the blend of both of their characters, quiet and shy but so rebellious in her own way. Her love for Pedro Tercero García drives her to fearlessly fight her father in any possible way. And this very trait is then inherited to Alba, her and García’s illegitimate child. However, in light of a different era, Alba is more forthright and more stubborn than her mother. These three women, these three representations of the fair sex across times and eras, have important roles of their own which help shaping the entire narrative alongside the character of Trueba, keeping the balance of both genders in a marvelous tale of historical events, wave of ideology, and endless love.

The story is intricately written from two different points of view, Esteban Trueba’s and his granddaughter Alba’s, making it rich and luxurious, instilling in the reader multifaceted understanding of the events that take place. This way of storytelling is one of the many unique things found in the book. It doesn’t necessitate the reader judging any character or assessing any happenings, or even conceding any ideology. It flows as it is, as a story of a family and a society that are never perfect in their natures. The plot is unusual as well. It doesn’t really run in a straightforward line, nor is it molded into a flashback pattern. Allende seems to make it like a recollection of the past events bouncing off every which way without certainty. But, thankfully, it’s not distracting, but demanding our full attention instead. The description of every character is also very much clear, developing through the course of the said events so that the reader can have a clear picture in their mind. What so incredible about this book is that Allende concocts every ingredient cleverly and serves it as one unity, marking each era she recounts with the presence of a character and all of their personalities and thoughts and choices of life, and then infusing them with her ideas so that every aspect is inseparable and solid.

The House of the Spirits is a stunning, breathtaking work of fiction, and so far I have found no match for it. Its beauty and excellence are all indescribable. In short, it is definitely very much recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

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