Title: The House of the Spirits
Author: Isabel Allende
Translator: Magda Bogin
Published by: Atria Books
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
Content Warning: Rape, police brutality, domestic violence, state oppression, torture, force imprisonment
“The House of the Spirits brings to life the triumphs and tragedies of three generations of the Trueba family. The patriarch Esteban is a volatile, proud man whose voracious pursuit of political power is tempered only by his love for his delicate wife, Clara, a woman with a mystical connection to the spirit world. When their daughter Blanca embarks on a forbidden love affair in defiance of her implacable father, the result is an unexpected gift to Esteban: his adored granddaughter Alba, a beautiful and strong-willed child who will lead her family and her country into a revolutionary future.” (Source)
It’s always really hard to review books that are celebrated classics. The House of the Spirits is really a book you have to read to understand, there’s no way the blurb on the back cover can prepare you for it. The House of the Spirits is actually the first magical realism book I’ve read that’s written by a Latin American author. Which is kind of important since authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Marquez, Silvina Ocampo, and Isabel Allende, plus many more, are the authors who invented the genre of magic realism and propelled it to greater fame in the Anglophone world. One one hand The House of the Spirits is a fascinating read due to its importance in the genre, but on the other I kept feeling like I’d read parts of the book before due to the sheer amount of authors who have been directly or indirectly influenced by Allende’s work.
At the heart of it, The House of the Spirits is a family saga and the story of a changing country. It’s through the lives of four generations of the Trueba family that the reader experiences the changes in what is assumed to be Chile, although the country and its political leaders are never named. Secondly, this is also a story about women, nameless women, Clara the mystic, Blanca the lover, and Alba the rebel. It’s their actions that shape the narrative of the book and the lives of the people around them.
But I do need to mention the rape since there’s a lot of it. I actually wasn’t expecting it and almost wound up putting the book down in the first quarter of it. I’m glad I didn’t but it did drastically shape and change my reading experience. The House of the Spirits is a book that tells a story of colonial power structures in Chile between the landlords and the peasants, between European descended immigrants and Indigenous peoples, between conservatives and liberals, between fascists and marxists. Rape is an extension of that power structure, when one group of people thinks they’re superior than others due to inherent right, and haunts the characters all the way through the book. The reader follows the lives of Clara, Blanca and Alba as they navigate these power structures, and the lives of the men they love and hate. That doesn’t make it any less difficult to get through though.
Overall I really enjoyed The House of the Spirits and it wasn’t really any more horrific than other historical fiction I’ve read like Human Acts by Han Kang, or Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan. But the violence of it took me by surprise as I hadn’t seen it discussed in the reviews I’d read about the book. The House of the Spirits is very much worth a read, but definitely not a book for everyone.