This is the book I chose for the ‘geological formation’ category of the whimsical reading challenge.
Island Beneath the Sea, by Isabel Allende, tells the story of Tete a young slave girl, and the stories of those who impact her life. Set predominantly in Santo Domingo and Louisiana, the decadence and grit of Allende’s descriptions ooze tropical heat and drag you kicking and screaming into a world of sickening wealth and hideous poverty. The is no Gone With the Wind style romanticism; the planters and the slaves are pretty much as cruel as each other.
There are a number of key themes present in the novel that are interwoven to create an addictive, epic, narrative.
The family unit is very fluid in this novel, and needless to say, very dysfunctional. Obviously this was a different time, so we cannot judge the actions or morals of others by today’s standards but wow. We may be privy to a few snapshots of familial hell, but there are also some really hopeful images of profound love. This love may have been encountered as a result of unfortunate circumstances, but it endures nonetheless. I’m finding it really hard to describe what I mean without giving away any of the plot twists, so I think you’ll just have to read it!
One thing I really enjoyed about this novel is that it really isn’t didactic in the slightest. There is no moralistic Christian thread running through each chapter, judging everything and everyone. A number of belief systems play a part, ranging from Catholicism to Atheism to Voodoo but the most significant thing I took from this is the mutual respect of the differing worshippers. That is something I find pretty rare, usually we see one dominant religion trying to squish the rest but in Island Beneath the Sea we see Voodoo practitioners turning to a Catholic priest, an Atheist praying for salvation, a Catholic madwoman haunted by Voodoo spirits and a Christian doctor taking lessons from a Voodoo High Priestess. I think that by weaving in all of these unexpected relationships Allende has created not just a setting for a novel, but a real world of ‘grey area’ and blurred lines.
Despite the apparent religious tolerance mentioned previously, this is not a novel of acceptance. Discrimination creeps into the novel on almost every page, whether it be a result of gender, financial status or the very complex caste system; in Island Beneath the Sea there isn’t just black, white and mixed race… there are countless shades (and nationalities) in between that all mean something different.
Looking back, I’m not sure I would call this a ‘nice’ book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is probably the best book I’ve read in a good long while, and I hope you will give it a chance. I for one will be hunting down every other novel written by Isabel Allende because this one truly did blow me away.