The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende: Book Review

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The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende Book Cover
Title: The House of the Spirits
Series Number: 3
Content Warning: Rape, abortion, torture

My Synopsis:

The House of the Spirits follows three generations of the Trueba family through struggles, triumph, and war in an unnamed South American country. Esteban, the patriarch, enters adulthood almost penniless. Through hard work and brutal oversight of his tenant farmers, he eventually becomes a power player in his country. Yet his family is so different from him, he can’t even comprehend their point of view. His wife is a seer and mystic. His daughter falls in love with the wrong man. His sons renounce their wealth for lives of austerity or spiritualism. His granddaughter gets caught up in the country’s violent politics. But through it all, the Trueba line continues.

My Review:

I’m just not the reader for magical realism in literature. Oh, I do just fine with Sarah Addison Allen’s light touches of fantasy in otherwise contemporary novels. But a huge black beast of an unknown species adopting a family? Spirits wandering the house? Curses? Mermaid girls? All in dark historical fiction? I just get confused. Add in a cast of characters that I either actively dislike or I’m simply indifferent to and I’m going to struggle. That was the case here.

I did appreciate the family saga at the heart of the book:

“I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously”.

By observing three generations of this family, we do get to see patterns emerging. Sometimes they’re family quirks (green hair), and sometimes they’re much darker eye-for-an-eye fare.

This family is a microcosm of the country too. Small seeds eventually lead to earth-shattering events. It’s hard to discuss this without getting into spoilers, but karma doesn’t always pay you back; sometimes she gets your family. And when you view those with different political beliefs from you as the enemy, where do you draw the line?

“[The] country is at war, whether war against international Communism or its own people it’s hard to tell”.

One day you might wake up and find that you’ve become the enemy too. This part was chilling to read considering how divided the United States currently is.

“To Senator Trueba, all political parties except his own were potentially Marxist, and he could not distinguish one ideology from another.”

Some of us don’t even attempt to see things from another point of view, and that stands true for all political parties.

The last third of the book is the most difficult to read emotionally but it’s also the part that finally caught my attention. The first two-thirds meandered around a lot of episodes that felt irrelevant and tangential to me. I just wanted to get on with the story. But once the revolution started, events happened quickly and I finally started flipping pages instead of finding any excuse to check my social media.

Ultimately, the book does end on a note of hope.

“It was then I understood that the days of Colonel García and all those like him are numbered, because they have not been able to destroy the spirit of these women.”

The translation by Magda Bogin is well done.

This book is a modern classic and a lot of people love it. I can see why, but for my taste, it could have been tightened up a lot. Readers who enjoy magical realism and don’t rely as heavily on likeable characters as I do will enjoy it more than I did.

Banned Books Week:

Banned Books Week 2021

The House of the Spirits has been challenged numerous times. Generally, the challenges have been centered around sex and violence (although one challenge claimed the book “defames the Catholic faith” and I don’t know where that came from). Sex and violence is definitely in here but that doesn’t mean that someone else gets to tell me if I can or can’t read it. It’s my choice.

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  1. I am also not good with magical realism so haven’t tackled much Allende. It’s nice to see that you read it for BBW though!

  2. I haven’t read this, but I did see the movie many, many years ago. It was very strange and I didn’t care for it, so I probably wouldn’t like the book. A little magical realism goes a long way. 🙂

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