The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Reading The House of the Spirits taught me that “nacre” is a natural material related to pearl. And that I don’t actually like magical realism.

The author is a Chilean-American (born in Peru), the novel was written in Spanish, and—though the narrative never says—its setting is Chile. There are a couple of unnamed real (or real-ish) people in the narrative whom I don’t know anything about without looking them up. (“The Poet” is Pablo Neruda and “The Candidate/President” is Salvador Allende.) Wikipedia informs me that the purpose of the book was “to exorcise the ghosts of the Pinochet dictatorship,” which overthrew President Allende, a Socialist who had been elected democratically. The last name is not a coincidence; he was a cousin of author Isabel Allende’s.

The narration strangely flips between first and third person. I found the narration frustrating because the events are told in a kind of distant, rushed way. Rather than feeling involved in the story as if I was living it alongside the characters wondering what would happen next, I felt as if the events didn’t matter because they’d already happened and the narrator knows it all in more detail than I’m ever going to hear. Not every frame story causes this kind of bored impatience. This one does in part because from time to time the narration drops in facts about later events, which made the story feel even more abrupt and made it even harder to relate to the characters.

Thus, as long as the story is, it feels like a summary of a story and not a story. It feels like a movie of a book, the kind of movie that pogo-sticks through a much longer tale, picking out only the highlights. But at least in such a movie, one that switches from scene to scene with a lot missing in between, the scenes themselves are immersive.

I don’t get it. If the point of the book is to teach those who do not know how bad the dictatorship was, why tell a long, quasi-magical family story that doesn’t actually convey much history? The book seems merely to be using the coup as a dramatic climax for the story… to the extent that the book has a singular climax rather than a series of them.

When and Why I Read It

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it. I bought it by mail from someone on Carousell in Singapore.

Genre: fiction
Date started / date finished:  9-Sep-16 to 23-Sep-16
Length: 491 pages
ISBN: 0552955886 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1985
Amazon link: The House of the Spirits

Why I don’t like magical realism

I started reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children back in 1998; it was the first book I recorded in the book log I’ve been keeping ever since. About six months later I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I just finished reading Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits.

I’ve read more than a thousand books (over seventeen hundred, actually) since my first recorded exposure to magical realism, so I’m better able to articulate an opinion. All three of these strange books are great in the sense that they are literary, cultural touchstones. But I don’t like them.

Probably I dislike these magical realism books in part because I don’t know enough political history to appreciate their settings, but I think mainly I dislike the books because they’re exaggerated. Grotesquely. I don’t like exaggeration as a form of humor—or as a form of literature, apparently.

I don’t mind fantasy books at all. I am willing to suspend disbelief when reading stories about dragons or other planets (or dragons and other planets—thank you, Anne McCaffrey), perhaps because it’s super clear when I’m supposed to. Pretending that wizards or warp drives are normal is a cooperative enterprise I can happily engage in with the author.

In contrast, magical realism makes me feel like the victim of a prolonged practical joke. The author presents what seems to be a realistic world, but then, here and there, nonchalantly distorts it worse than a fun-house mirror. Am I supposed to take the magical bits at face value (which is how they’re presented)? Are the magical bits just literary cleverness signposting some kind of wise metaphor that I’m stupidly overlooking? Is the magic just random nonsense that’s supposed to be funny, precisely because it makes no sense? I’m uncomfortable with all three of these theories, especially because a single book could, for all I know, include a mix of elements that fit all three patterns.*

Is magical realism to be lauded for causing feelings of mystery that reflect the mystery of real life, or is it to be criticized for pretentiously making book-reading as a form of entertainment harder than it needs to be? The former, judging by the sales figures.

However, in fact the sales figures have been used by literary critics to support the notion that magical realist works are not deserving of respect. Regardless of whether it’s about McCaffrey’s Pern or Allende’s Chile, any novel the masses enjoy, the logic goes, cannot be very profound.

Personally, no matter what the sales figures or the critics say, I’d far rather read magic than magical realism.

 


*Or—this didn’t even occur to me but was pointed out by someone in the HHBC discussion—maybe the magical elements are indicative of an unreliable narrator. In other words, maybe the story involves no magical events at all, but is being related by someone who’s lying, confused, or crazy. (I don’t like unreliable narrators any more than I like magical realism, so for me, this theory, while useful, doesn’t exactly fix the problem.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Though I didn’t know anything about the book, the title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the author’s exotic-sounding three-part name were familiar to me for years. I’ve now read the book, but I don’t feel I am familiar enough with Hurston’s historical context or the intervening decades of relevant literary criticism to fully appreciate its significance.

For a plot summary and other thoughts, see below.

Continue reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) by Agatha Christie

I don’t like murder mysteries because I don’t enjoy contemplating early deaths. Any justice achieved at the end of the story is rather after the fact for at least one victim. And Then There Were None is no exception.

However, in part because it is the celebrated work of a celebrated author, I’m not sorry I read it. For more thoughts on the the book (no big spoilers), see below.

Continue reading Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) by Agatha Christie

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I was expecting Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar to be depressing, and it was—just not as depressing as I’d expected.

I don’t think I’d read anything by Sylvia Plath, but I had the impression that she was famous for poetry relating to depression and death, and that this famous book had some kind of morbid theme. I also had the impression that Plath was the author of “Resumé”, a memorable and oddly charming poem about suicide that turns out to be by Dorothy Parker.

The novel tells the story of Esther, a nineteen-year-old college student in the US who has been sent to work at the office of a New York City fashion magazine for one month. The story follows her anguished personal struggle with others’ expectations of her and with her own professional and romantic ambitions.

The novel did not impress me favorably overall, but I attribute that judgment to my personal taste for happier content.

For more about when and why I read the novel and what stood out (including a detailed plot summary in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat), see below.

Continue reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This work of speculative fiction tells the story of an alternative present-day reality or near future in which the US government has been supplanted by an oppressive religious regime. Fertility rates are down. In the new Republic of Gilead, women have lost their independence. Some are assigned to deserving soldiers as wives, domestic servants or econo-wives while others are forced into prostitution or are made into handmaids—women who will symbolically bear children on behalf of the wives.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a controversial work. It is studied in American high schools, but some parents feel that its sexual scenes are inappropriate for teenagers. Others complain about the negative depiction of Christianity. I would say that it’s a book that, like many others, will not be fully understood by teenagers but is nevertheless well worth reading and pondering.

For more on the plot and themes, continue reading.

Continue reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

See below for my thoughts on this excellent novel, when and why I read it (twice!), and a list of other books I’ve read that are about India or by Indian authors.

My write-up of the premise, characters, themes and what I liked about the book contains some details about the characters that could be considered spoilers but does not give away the climax or resolution of the tale.

Continue reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth