Island Beneath The Sea by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende's latest novel, Island Beneath the Sea, is a sumptuous and thought-provoking saga that inhabits the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti) and the lively streets of New Orleans.
Set in a 40-year period that spans from 1770, notions of slavery give the novel its fiery heart.
A young Frenchman, Toulouse Valmorain, is reluctantly summoned to his ailing father's estate in Saint-Domingue at the age of 20, and finds he not only has to take over but also undertake a rescue job to save the plantation. Valmorain arrives with humanitarian ideals - fostered as much by the French intellectual climate as by youthful idealism - but these are slowly chipped away by the estate's dependency upon slaves.
Valmorain forms three significant relationships with women. The first is with Violette, a mulatto concubine, beautiful, smart and fiercely independent. The second is with Eugenia, a Spanish woman who becomes his wife, bears a son, but cannot cope with the challenging conditions and descends into madness.
The final and most significant woman is Zarite (Tete for short). Valmorain purchases Tete as a domestic slave to care for his wife and son. She aspires to the freedom and independence of Violette, but she is tied to her master in ways beyond the laws of slavery. She becomes mother to the master's legitimate son, is forced to relinquish the son she bears him, but is allowed to keep the illegitimate daughter they share. The majority of the narrative is in the third person and we get insight into the doubts, fears and desires of Valmorain. He is not strong enough to resist things that eat away at him below the surface.
Tete's voice cuts into the narrative in italicised sections. As she observes and interprets the world about her, she unsettles the main version of relations, events and beliefs. Tete's presence elevates the novel to another level. She offers glimpses into how women survive the authority of men and how the black slaves and mulatti survive the even crueller authority they face.
The novel's second strength lies in the tremendous accumulation of detail. The characters and the world grow luminous on the page, and I was hooked by the way the deeper issues were made movingly real. At times it is a story of survival: how to eat, how to be silent, how to use the natural world for healing and nourishment. I became caught up in an intricate web of laws that governed a particular part of the world at a particular time. Laws that were inhumane and biased; laws which licensed slavery but which overlooked rape. Yes, this is a novel that exposes the sickening effects of slavery and misguided authority, but it is also a novel of fortitude, resistance and tenderness.
Allende has created an astonishing and complex character, and in the complicated experience of this individual we get to see deeper into our complicated world.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.