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Review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Since reading The Thorn Birds a few years ago (and basking in its brilliance), I have been looking for an epic generational saga that matched its sweeping, sprawling awesomeness. I came fairly close with The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I thought I’d get closer still with this one, turns out it placed somewhere nice and snug between the two. And it was still a marvelously entertaining read.

The House of the Spirits follows four generations of the Del Valle/Trueba family living in Lima at the turn of the century. As you would expect from family sagas it’s all about the characters, with a fair bit of drama thrown in. The only plot for about 85% of the novel is about what they get up to in their own time, so for the sake of a spoiler-free environment I won’t say much about that. But I enjoyed it, the drama was fabulous and unexpected in parts while the happy times were solidly entertaining. Some passages were also unintentionally hilarious.

“Amanda seized the newborn from his hands and gently placed her on the belly of her mother, where she found some consolation for the sadness of being born.”

Now, for family sagas to really work, you need some good characters (‘scuse me for stating the obvious) but sadly there were none I cared deeply about. I liked them enough. I had a firm interest in the characters from the earlier generations: if I were to pick a favourite it would be Clara, as I enjoyed her eccentricities, her stoic and unassuming strength of character, her magical tendencies. Allende often uses magical realism in her novels, and here Clara is the main focus of that, and I found the passages describing her clairvoyant antics to be quite fun.

“Her father forbade her to read the future in cards and to invoke ghosts and mischievous spirits that annoyed the rest of the family and terrorized the servants, but Nívea understood that the more limitations and shocks her daughter was subjected to the madder she became […]”

I felt for Férula and I wish we had seen more of her, as her story was touching and quite relatable. Esteban Trueba, arguably the main character, made an awesome read. He had the Clarkson effect: terrible example of a human being but you kind of love to watch him anyway. He was remarkably evil, and he made no apologies. He was a Hollywood disaster movie and I was wolfing down my popcorn. I don’t think he could have gotten any more evil while remaining a believable character, but I wanted more. I wanted to hate the guy, and enjoy hating him because I love a good baddie. But, just like with the Clarkson, a part of me kind of likes him. And I have no idea why…

For a good third of the (rather long) novel, I truly thought I had found a saga that was up there with The Thorn Birds, that’s how into it I was. After a while it became apparent that I wasn’t going to fall in love with the characters, but I still greatly enjoyed what was happening to them. I really did feel happy for them whenever something went well in their lives. And though I knew drama would continue to occur, I really felt their pain when it did. A lot of it I didn’t see coming, some fairly shocking drama that took me by surprise, even with the narrator’s habit of foreshadowing. It wasn’t even foreshadowing half the time, I was often flat out told that a character was about to go through some very explicit shit in the next chapter. It still hit me hard when it happened. This may be a good time to warn potential readers that the novel contains potentially triggering scenes of rape, murder, domestic abuse, more rape, paedophilia, incest and a little bit more rape, you know, for the variety. Honestly, it is a good book.

So despite not really caring all that much about the characters, I still related, still found their stories very readable and enjoyable. The first half of the novel far exceeded the second, but that’s because the drama was still very family focused with none of the politics that overshadow the second half, with characters that I had more than a passing interest in. There aren’t a lot of generational sagas out there (that I have really seen), and the ones I have picked up have generally not made it past my “kindle sample test”. This is the third one I have enjoyed, so if you’re a fan of The Thorn Birds and fancy another tale quite like it, you might well enjoy the antics of the Del Valle/Trueba clan.


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