The Island Beneath the Sea

September 26, 2012

Authors: Isabel Allende
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Year: 2011
ISBN: 9780061988257
Rating: ★★★★☆
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The Island Beneath the Sea is everything we have come to expect from Isabel Allende. It is rich, colourful and sensual. Her writing became popular with her heart rending memoir Paula where she chronicled her daughter’s fight against a disease that eventually claimed her life. Allende has been criticized for being at bad writer on many occasions, for writing books driven mainly by emotion but on reading the novel one doesn’t find anything that would merit such harsh criticism.

The Island Beneath the Sea is a work of fiction that begins on an eighteenth century Caribbean Island then called Saint-Dominge and follows the life of a slave girl Zarité Sedella, also known as Tété. Tété’s evolving relationship with her master Toulouse Valmorain, a Frenchman who owns a plantation in Saint-Dominge, forms the center of the novel. Valmorain becomes increasingly dependent on his slave when his Spanish wife Eugene slowly loses her sanity in the tropical climate of the Caribbean, reminiscent of Bertha Mason from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Tété becomes the manager of the household and is forced to cater to every need of her master by virtue of being his property. Behind this efficient service rages the desire to be free. The island is swept by rebellion from the blacks who, having been suppressed and tortured for so long at the hands of the white colonizers, descend to savagery in order to gain freedom from slavery. When Valmorain’s plantation is attacked, it is Tété who helps him and his son run away to safety. They move to Lousiana to join the Creole society there and the story continues as Tété eventually gains her freedom and sorts out the lives of her children.

Allende’s flair as a memoir writer is apparent in her characters. Though fictional, they are extremely well fleshed out and even secondary characters like Violette Boisier Valmorain’s sometime lover, Dr Parmentier the French doctor, Tante Rose the matriarchal healer on the plantation in Saint Dominge are solidly crafted and appear ready to walk off the page. Despite the numerous characters, each is unique enough to hold our attention. The novel is well researched and Allende manages to capture the essence of the Caribbean as well as the Creole society. Her writing is sensual, not merely erotic, it captivates all the senses of the reader. She evokes the smells, sights and sounds of these places separated from the reader by time and distance. The pungent smells of Saint Dominge, the buzz of the mosquitoes, the sights of brutality at slave markets and the elaborate social etiquette of Creole society are brought to life.

As the novel spans four decades, it begins to falter a little near the end with too much historical detail appearing to choke the narrativet but Allende recovers in time and plays to her strengths by immediately reverting to the humanistic aspect of her story. The backbone is the same as in most of Allende’s works- a strong maternal woman who withstands the battering ram of time and various social and political forces and emerges whole. She capitulates the various debates surrounding slavery and abolition. Eventually her aim is to give voice to the black woman, Tété, who is twice removed from the center of power, held by the white male, Valmorian, by virtue of being a black slave and a woman. The smooth flow of the narrative is interrupted by chapters titled Zarité where the black slave woman tells us her side of the story with the assertive refrain of “this is how it was.”

The Island Beneath the Sea is a beautifully sketched narrative of inhuman brutality overcome by superhuman resilience.

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