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Wednesday, June 26

The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

While speaking at a TED conference on the role of the writer, Isabel Allende mentioned a Jewish proverb asking what is truer than Truth. The answer was the story. I believe the success of her writings resides in her fantabulous gift of telling excellent stories. The Island Beneath the Sea is a 2010 novel of great humanity and passionate characters. Neither a self-confession nor a story on the importance of genealogy, this novel is about the swifting nature of power.

The story begins on the island of Saint-Domingue in the late 18th century. Zarité (known as Tété) is the daughter of an African mother and a white sailor, who is bought by the beautiful courtesan, Violette, on behalf of Toulouse Valmorain, a Frenchman owing a sugar plantation and one of her many lovers. When Valmorain gets married, Tété becomes his wife's personal slave. But her mistress has a frail spirit and soon goes mad so Valmorain forces Tété, now a teenager, into sexual slavery, which leads to several illegitimate children. The mulatto slave is an intriguing presence to her master, who cannot decides whether he despises her or he loves her, an excuse for the writer to portray the race and sex relations between the white planters and their slaves. Part One of the novel is set in Saint-Domingue (1770-1793) and captures the culture of the plantation mentality in all its ugliness, dirt, and brutality and it culminates with the slaves' uprising. When the great rebellion begins, the whites who had not been killed on their plantations go to Le Cap and continue to live a sweet life despite the violent political and social changes. Toulouse Valmorain and his family, including Tété, flee to New Orleans in 1793, and Part Two (1793-1810) is set there.

Spanning four decades, the story leaps from the Haitian slave revolution to the cosmopolitan New Orleans. Apparently a historical novel, The Island Beneath the Sea rather weaves around Tété and Valmorain and all those related and connected to them, turning the story into a gripping adventure. Also, there are some recurring themes of Isabel Allende's writings such as loyalty, injustice, passion, freedom, power and the ever-present dichotomy between master/slave, black/white, colony/mainland, English/French or men/women.

The title, Island Beneath the Sea, refers to an Afro-Caribbean belief in a ever-lasting Eden. It illustrates the slaves' belief that equality between races can be found only in heaven, whereas Tété believes that in love and death we are all equal; the power of love is purifying and elevating. This is what drew me to this novel and to Isabel Allende's novels- the humanity of her characters, their love of life and stamina, the way they connect to the earthly and spiritual forces to fill themselves with positive energy. Isabel Allende's women burst with femininity and beauty lies deep within their hearts, an ancestral power to seduce men, sometimes against their better judgement. The Island Beneath the Sea is a book that will haunt your mind, soul and senses long after you have read its final pages; the kind of book that leaves you satisfied, yet yearning for more. Excellent reading!
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