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Book Review: Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

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Isabelle Allende’s novel, Island Beneath the Sea, is a timeless tale about the nature of power and how even the most powerless of people — a fictional 18th Century African slave woman named Zarité or even me or you — can become powerful in unexpected ways.

Power is explored in many of its different manifestations. The power of money. The power of violence. The power of social status. The power of popular opinion. The power of appearance. The power of addiction. The power of optimism. And most importantly, the power of love.

Many of the characters I see symbolizing a type of power:

Toulouse Valmorain – Power of money;
Prosper Cambray – Power of violence;
Hortense Guizot – Power of social status;
Violette Boisier – Power of appearance;
Maurice – Power of optimism;
Zarité – Power of love.

Island Beneath the Sea is a historical novel set in the Caribbean and New Orleans against the backdrop of 18th Century world changes such as the US war of Independence, the French Revolution and the massive slave revolt that turned Santo Domingo into the country of Haiti.

During the first part of the book, I felt a mixture of emotions. The story of slavery and the excesses of the slave owners repulsed me. Yet, at the same time the story drew me in with the complex humanity that Isabel Allende finds in each of her characters. Just like in life, everyone thinks he or she is the good guy.

Isabel has said, “With relatives like mine I don’t need to use my imagination, they alone provide all the material I need for my novels . . . . Many of my relatives have been the models for the characters in my books, like my grandparents who became Esteban Trueba and Clara del Valle in The House of the Spirits.”

Writing characters inspired by people and experiences in ones own life follows the traditional dictum to “write what you know.” Let’s pause to look at another great writer — Ernest Hemingway. Shrapnel hit Hemingway’s knee in World War One. He knew what that feels like. So, when his characters were wounded in war, they were often wounded in the same way as Hemingway. He could truthfully write, “I knew I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin.”

Keeping with this tradition, Isabel Allende’s grandfather seems to not only have become Esteban Trueba in The House of the Spirits, but to have also become the character Toulouse Valmorain in Island Beneath the Sea. Both Trueba (in Chile) and Valmorain (in Santo Domingo) are large land-owners who inherited their property that was neglected by the generation before them. The land was worked by slaves (indigenous peons in Chiles and African slaves in Santo Domingo). They both considered it acceptable behavior to rape girl slaves when they reached puberty and fathered a number of illegitimate mixed-race children. They both considered themselves to be model plantation or hacienda owners, because they treated their slaves better than their neighboring land barons treated their slaves. Both characters reveal love and tenderness to legitimate child descendents.

Valmorain in Island Beneath the Sea fascinated me. It was intriguing to be able to peer inside the mind of this sugar plantation slave owner — to see his self-justification. Indeed, a whole society supported his belief system that what he was doing was good, just and even divine. It helps me to understand what might be going on in the minds of people in positions of power in any age, anywhere.

The title, Island Beneath the Sea, refers to an Afro-Caribbean belief in a paradisiacal afterworld. The novel also reveals the power-structure’s self-serving religious beliefs that equality is to be found only in heaven. But the protagonist, Zarité, is convinced that equality can be achieved in the here and the now. Even through the most daunting of trials she holds on to this dream, this conviction of her heart.

In an interview, Allende said that she writes to entertain the reader. I find meaning deeper than mere entertainment in Allende’s work. Like Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda has said — reading great literature makes it possible to learn from the lives of many different people, and not just from our own limited direct experience. I read novels seeking those life lessons. In Allende’s work I find not only entertainment, but also great wisdom. I believe that Isabel Allende is a living treasure of humanity.

After finishing reading The Island Beneath the Sea I felt grounded, confident and filled with hope for the future.

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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.
  • http://blueletters.webs.com/ Paul Barnett

    After reading Lynette Yetter’s review of Isabel Allende’s “Island Beneath the Sun” I was left with the desire to learn more not only about what happens to the characters in Ms. Allende’s novel but of the author herself.
    What is intriguing is the idea of how one person can decided to stand up and challenge the status quo, deciding to end a generational cycle of rage.
    As Ms. Yetter writes, the main character is “convinced that equality can be achieved in the here and the now.”
    What powerful lesson in any age.

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter, author of the novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace

    Thank you, Paul, for taking the time to read this review and posting your thoughtful comments.

    I hope you do read the story, and also learn more about Isabel Allende. The more I learn about her, the more I admire her.

  • Bruce Mitchell

    Thank you for bringing this new book to my attention. I have long been a fan of Isabel Allende and have read most of her books yet somehow missed this latest.

    Her depictions of societal and individual exercise of power and of the dynamics of power in relationships is fascinating. Everyone thinks they’re the good guy indeed. I wonder if that is really universally true. Does evil never see itself as such? It is a concept to ponder.

    I’ve wondered all my life why some people have such a strong need to dominate, control or crush others. It cannot all be explained away by the idea that there’s never enough to go around, that in order for some to prosper and live well, others must suffer do without — which seems to me a rather self-justifying attitude toward life.

    Isabel Allende addresses such issues and more, much more, in her novels, which are also immensely enjoyable reads. Thank you, Lynette, for your review and for bringing this book to my attention. You’ve prompted me to go right out and get it, pronto.

  • http://lucidmembrane.weebly.com/ Tantra Bensko

    I’m sure she’s glad you had that reaction, to be able to sit with the complexity of how people who do bad things feel justified, to read the life of a slave, and come out inspired, and calm, empowered. Thanks for reviewing, Lynette. Keep it up!

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter, author of the novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace

    @Bruce – Enjoy reading “Island Beneath the Sea”

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter, author of the novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace

    Tantra, thank you for taking the time from your writing to read this review and for your articulate feedback. Yes, I will keep it up!

  • chris delaney

    Thanks Lynette. A brilliant article. I want to get this book.I love Isabel Allende.

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter, author of the novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace

    Thank you, Chris. I love Isabel Allende, too. Enjoy reading this latest book of hers!

  • elsa

    gracias Lynette,
    ahora tengo la novela en mis manos
    para comenzar a leerla,
    abrazos de mar,
    elsita

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter, author of the novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace

    De nada, Elsa. Que le vaya bien en esta jornada en el mundo de la gran Isabel Allende.

  • Loa

    The novel was enthralling in the beginning, and I really root for Zarite in the beginning, because she was relentless in searching for her freedom until she decided it was easier being a slave. Then she finds love with Gambo and I think the story will be about then find freedom and happiness in each other, but alas my hopes were dashed again, by her choosing a child of the plantocracy over her lover. I ended by being positive that either Zarite was a fool or just damaged by her years in servitude, whatever the explanation I just couldn’t connect with her as a strong heroine anymore.

    Enter this perverse relationship that Maurice and Rosette develops, and it takes me back to the worst moments of “flowers in the attic”. I think Allende could have made a really strong point with a biracial couple defying the odds, but she sullied the message by making the couple brother and sister, who are fully aware of their paternal connection. I don’t know what dimension it added save to erase the message which I think she was trying to send, if one examines Maurice’s speech. Further I was actually left convinced at the end that Maurice really suffered from the madness of his mother, and in a more troubling and self-destructive way too. Most offensive.