"And what is my definition of feminism?" Chilean author Isabel Allende writes in her new memoir, The Soul of a Woman. "It is not what we have between our legs but what we have between our ears." Laconic and astute, this quote illustrates the wider work, which is a bricolage of intimate reflections, family histories and feminist discourses. It's a powerful offering, one made more impactful by Allende's ability to condense her rich personal stories and philosophies into a very readable 140 pages.
The name Allende carries a unique aura, closely associated as it is with the post-war political, social and cultural fate of her homeland, especially after the 1973 martyrdom of Isabel's presidential cousin, Salvador, and of the country's democratic institutions. Author Allende has added strength and weight to the family name through her writings. With its epic interlacing of family, politics and magic realism, her 1982 novel, The House of Spirits is widely regarded as one of the best written in the 20th century. Her strong portrayal of women's lives in her books has always been companioned by her advocacy work, including her foundation which strives to secure women's reproductive rights, economic independence and freedom from violence.
Where The Soul of a Woman is concerned, such details act less as a biographical backstory for its author than as an illustration of the thematic threads that Allende weaves through this formidable work. It must be said that what results is rambling. It's composed of myriad pithy episodic asides, a non-linear recollection of family life-histories, a few emblematic poems, some Chilean folk-tales, various accounts warning against the possibility of wedded bliss and a sequence of political pieces. Therein there is little traditional narrative structure to the book. For instance, within a few pages, Allende offers varying digressions which move from observations on the 2019 Chilean public uprising against transport fares into recollections of her mother Panchita's failed relationships and a migrant school friend's violent subjugation into arranged marriage.
But the digressive nature of The Soul of a Woman is its strength. Its title and subtitle (Rebel Girls, Impatient Love and Long Life) are upfront about the core literary terrain: what the back cover calls, "what it means to be a woman". So what unfolds in this memoir is akin to what would unfold if we were privileged to a private discussion with Allende. The intimacy, honesty and conversational style of writing which results flows easily, particularly given Allende's skill at brevity. Each recollection, reflection and oration is skillfully compressed into a few pages.
Consequently, to read The Soul of a Woman is to become close to Allende. Through her subtle, informal prose, we learn about her past, her family (her multiple marriages, her children and the wider Allende whakapapa) and the feminist belief-system she's built out of hard and joyful life-lessons, losses, systemic discrimination and an uncompromising lifelong determination never to comply with the status quo.
The Soul of a Woman is a must-read life-manual for all women.
- Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey
The Soul of a Woman, by Isabel Allende (Bloomsbury, $25)