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

"A long petal of the sea" is a phrase that Pablo Neruda employed in a poem describing his homeland, Chile. Isabel Allende appropriated it for the title of her book and she heads each chapter of it with a quote from one of Neruda's poems. Neruda even appears as a character in this historical fiction novel. At times, he seems to overwhelm the story.

At the heart of the narrative though is the story of Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera and it begins in Spain in 1939.

In the 1930s the Spanish Civil War is raging. Victor lives in Barcelona with his parents and brother, Guillem, and with Roser who is a poor child who was a piano student of Victor's father. She showed great promise and when she was abused by her family, the Dalmaus took her in. In time, Roser fell in love with Guillem, and by the time he joined the republican forces fighting against Franco, she was pregnant with his child. Victor was not inclined to join the fight. Instead, he was studying to be a doctor. But in time he was drawn into the fight anyway in order to provide medical care to the wounded. 

As the republican forces are inexorably vanquished, half a million Spanish refugees flee Franco and most of them head north to the French border. Among them are Victor, the heavily pregnant Roser, and his mother. By this time, his father is dead, and even though Victor hasn't told Roser and his mother, so is Guillem, having been killed in battle. Roser and the mother are in the care of a friend of Victor's who will guide them to the border, while Victor continues to tend the wounded along the way. Soon, the mother slips away, unwilling to be a hindrance to their escape. Roser and her guide continue.

France has set up concentration camps at its border to intern the refugees. Roser ends up in one of those camps, but she manages to get word out to a friend of Victor's who takes her to Perpignan to a Quaker family who provides shelter for her and her baby son. In the concentration camps, nine out of every ten children die.

Unknowingly, Victor is also trapped in another part of the same concentration camp where Roser was, but eventually, he escapes and traces her to her refuge in Perpignan. And there their fortune changes.

Pablo Neruda is a diplomat from Chile assigned to France. He is in sympathy with the refugees from Spain and he convinces the president of Chile to offer asylum to some of them, in spite of opposition from the Catholic church and other rightwingers in his country. Neruda ultimately arranges for the outfitting of a ship called the Winnipeg to carry 2000 Spaniards to his homeland. Victor, now married to Roser after finally telling her of the death of Guillem and learning that the only way they can travel together is if they are husband and wife, gains passage for himself, Roser, and the child.

The refugees receive a warm welcome in Chile and over time they become productive citizens of their new country. Victor completes his medical training and becomes an acclaimed and respected cardiologist. Roser's contributions are as an accomplished pianist and teacher and an organizer of musical societies and groups. Their marriage that began with fraternal obligation has evolved into a love match. They are happy.

Then comes the popular election of Salvador Allende, a Marxist, to the presidency and the subsequent plotting by fascists with the aiding and abetting by the C.I.A. to overthrow his government. A short three years later it happens and the country descends into chaos. And soon Victor is thrown into another concentration camp to be tortured. Roser, who was out of the country at the time of the coup, is spared.  

Isabelle Allende tells this story in a very straightforward, linear fashion (which frankly is a relief after so many of the books I've read recently have jumped around back and forth in time sometimes making them difficult to follow) and that somehow lends it more power. It reads almost like a journalist's report of events. After the brutal Pinochet comes to power in Chile, and Victor eventually is sprung from the concentration camp, he and Roser are refugees again, this time in Venezuela, where once again they receive a friendly welcome and are able to make a life for themselves. But they long to return to Chile.

Actual historical facts and people underlie Allende's narrative and it seems almost ripped from today's headlines. Once again we see countries, including our own, creating concentration camps at their borders to keep desperate refugees out. And yet, states and communities that actually are able to welcome refugees benefit greatly from their contributions. But that is an outcome that fascists will never accept.

I was swept along by the story of Victor and Roser, their two-time experience as refugees, and their ultimate triumph over all adversities. If I were a professional critic, no doubt I would find things to complain of concerning the book, but as an amateur in every sense of the word, I found it a very satisfying and rewarding read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Comments

  1. Thanks for a first rate review, Dorothy. I have always enjoyed Allende, so will keep my eye open for this one. She was interviewed a few years ago on CBC radio and seemed like the very kind of person you would love to meet.

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    1. I've loved every book of hers that I've ever read.

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  2. I love love loved The House of the Spirits when I read it in high school, but it is the only Allende book I have ever read. I think I should fix that when I have my TBR under control. Thanks for such a lovely review.

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    1. The House of Spirits may still be my favorite, although I also loved Eva Luna, Maya's Notebook, and The Japanese Lover. And, of course, this one.

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    2. I think Eva Luna may be the next one I try, I remember being recommended that one because I loved The House of the Spirits so much. I want to read them all at some point.

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  3. So glad you liked & reviewed this one. I would welcome a linear story as well ... it seems enough is going on within it already. I want to read her books.

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    1. You most definitely should read her books. I think you would like them.

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  4. I am looking forward to reading this as soon as I can get a copy. After reading so much by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, all influenced by the Spanish Civil War, I am eager to hear from Isabel Allende.

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    1. The book is up to her usual standard. Difficult to read at times but ultimately rewarding.

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  5. I'll be reading this one in March (hopefully), in Spanish.

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    1. It would be great to read it in Spanish. Unfortunately, my command of the language isn't up to the task, but even in English it was a terrific read.

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