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Isabel Allende

(Bloomsbury, 2022)

Reviewed by Daniel Rey


Oil paintings, a large household staff and a governess sent from England. Violeta del Valle is born into a family of aristocratic lineage in an unnamed South American country just before the arrival of the so-called Spanish flu. Wealth shields the family from the worst of the pandemic, but not even a vast fortune can protect against the Great Depression, which triggers the suicide of the patriarch and forces exile to the provinces.

Isabel Allende, one of the most-read Spanish-language novelists of all time, tells Violeta’s hundred-year life through a letter she writes to her grandson Camilo, a priest who ministers to the poor. Violeta’s life is bookended by two pandemics: the outbreak of influenza in Chile in 1920 and Covid-19. In between, Violeta sees the effects on her country of a military coup, vast political repression and the largest earthquake of the century.

Through her friends and family, Violeta has a good view of these weighty events; her devoted houseboy Torito is killed by the army, and her extra-marital lover Julián works for the mafia, the CIA and Fidel Castro. Violeta herself rarely has much impact on those around her, except when she discloses Julián’s financial records to the authorities. The records, which she had managed on his behalf, help convict him for fraud and tax evasion. 

The strongest influence on Violeta’s life, Julián draws her away from her staid marriage, siring two children and persuading Violeta to undergo sterilisation. Julián’s neglect of their son and adoration of their daughter mark all of their lives, leading Violeta towards a more meaningful romantic relationship with his surprisingly tender associate, Roy.

As one would expect from Allende, Violeta is nicely written, in a conversational style that reflects its epistolary form. Often, however, clichés make Violeta’s narration insipid. She writes that ‘Santa Clara was an oasis of calm’, and that ‘Women fluttered around him [Julián] like moths to a flame.’ On several occasions, Violeta speaks of Camilo, to whom she is writing, in the third person. The intimacy of her letter-novel is undermined by calling him not ‘you’ but ‘the baby’. 

Similarly, it is odd that Allende avoids naming the country where the majority of Violeta’s life takes place, given that it could only be Chile. The choice is particularly strange as Violeta’s narrative is full of geographical and historical detail (we learn that the country borders Argentina, and that a local home was ‘burned in the 1960 earthquake’). It’s hard to guess the purpose of this combination of specificity and anonymity.

Violeta begins with promise. The protagonist’s brother, her governess, and the governess’s gay lover are intriguing and well-drawn. But, as the novel develops, their participation tapers and Allende’s best personalities are soon forgotten amid a plethora of new characters.

Violeta starts her letter with the words, ‘Dear Camilo, I think you’ll see that my life story is worthy of a novel.’ With the exception of Part One, it’s rarely more interesting than any old grandparent’s reminiscences.