A Long Petal of the Sea: Characters take back seat in story stacked with historical detail

Book review: Isabel Allende generational saga is quite old-fashioned in its epic, romantic arc and can lapse into dullness

Isabel Allende pictured in her office in California in 2000. Allende is the niece of Dr Salvador Allende Gossens (pictured in the background) who had been elected president of Chile in 1970 but was ousted by a coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Photograph: Jakub Mosur/AP

Isabel Allende pictured in her office in California in 2000. Allende is the niece of Dr Salvador Allende Gossens (pictured in the background) who had been elected president of Chile in 1970 but was ousted by a coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Photograph: Jakub Mosur/AP

Beginning in the final year of the Spanish Civil War, when it is becoming clear to Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera that the Republican cause is doomed to fail, Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea covers half a century of political and social upheavals across Spain and Chile. When the two protagonists become refugees, Roser flees across the Pyrenees whilst heavily pregnant, eventually giving birth to Victor’s brother’s son, whose father is killed in battle. Victor, who marries Roser platonically in order to gain passage to a ship outfitted by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, has worked as a medic in the battlefield, and the two escape to Chile to seek a better life.

Though this novel does not have the magical realism of some of Allende’s other work, it retains a romantic sweep. This generational saga, carrying the reader from the 1930s right through to the early 1990s, is stacked with historical detail, though it often feels like the research takes prominence, and characters take a back seat in their own story. Often, that means that stereotypes come into play, or the characters themselves become emblematic of certain archetypal figures. The two brothers with which the story begins, for example, are Guillem and Victor, one is bulky, manly, and a warrior, the other is skinny, romantic, and poetic.

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