Born on the island of Saint-Domingue, Zarite--known as Tete--is the daughter of an African mother she never knew and one of the white sailors who brought her into bondage. Though her childhood is one of brutality and fear, Tete finds solace in the traditional rhythms of African drums and the voodoo loa she discovers through her fellow slaves.Read more...
Born on the island of Saint-Domingue, Zarite--known as Tete--is the daughter of an African mother she never knew and one of the white sailors who brought her into bondage. Though her childhood is one of brutality and fear, Tete finds solace in the traditional rhythms of African drums and the voodoo loa she discovers through her fellow slaves.
When twenty-year-old Toulouse Valmorain arrives on the island in 1770, it's with powdered wigs in his trunks and dreams of financial success in his mind. But running his father's plantation, Saint Lazare, is neither glamorous nor easy. Although Valmorain purchases young Tete for his bride, it is he who will become dependent on the services of his teenaged slave.
Against the merciless backdrop of sugarcane fields, the lives of Tete and Valmorain grow ever more intertwined. When the bloody revolution of Toussaint Louverture arrives at the gates of Saint Lazare, they flee the brutal conditions of the French colony, soon to become Haiti, for the raucous, free-wheeling enterprise of New Orleans. There Tete finally forges a new life, but her connection to Valmorain is deeper than anyone knows and not easily severed. With an impressive richness of detail, and a narrative wit and brio second to none, Allende crafts the riveting story of one woman's determination to find love amid loss, to offer humanity though her own has been so battered, and to forge a new identity in the cruelest of circumstances.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 43.
- Review Date: 2010-04-05
- Reviewer: Staff
[Signature]Reviewed by Marlon JamesOf the many pitfalls lurking for the historical novel, the most dangerous is history itself. The best writers either warp it for selfish purposes (Gore Vidal), dig for the untold, interior history (Toni Morrison), or both (Jeannette Winterson). Allende, four years after Ines of My Soul, returns with another historical novel, one that soaks up so much past life that there is nowhere left to go but where countless have been. Opening in Saint Domingue a few years before the Haitian revolution would tear it apart, the story has at its center Zarité, a mulatto whose extraordinary life takes her from that blood-soaked island to dangerous and freewheeling New Orleans; from rural slave life to urban Creole life and a different kind of cruelty and adventure. Yet even in the new city, Zarité can't quite free herself from the island, and the people alive and dead that have followed her.Zarité's passages are striking. More than merely lyrical, they map around rhythms and spirits, making her as much conduit as storyteller. One wishes there was more of her because, unlike Allende, Zarité is under no mission to show us how much she knows. Every instance, a brush with a faith healer, for example, is an opportunity for Allende to showcase what she has learned about voodoo, medicine, European and Caribbean history, Napoleon, the Jamaican slave Boukman, and the legendary Mackandal, a runaway slave and master of black magic who has appeared in several novels including Alejo Carpentier's Kingdom of This World. The effect of such display of research is a novel that is as inert as a history textbook, much like, oddly enough John Updike's Terrorist, a novel that revealed an author who studied a voluminous amount of facts without learning a single truth.Slavery as a subject in fiction is still a high-wire act, but one expects more from Allende. Too often she forgoes the restraint and empathy essential for such a topic and plunges into a heavy breathing prose reminiscent of the Falconhurst novels of the 1970s, but without the guilty pleasure of sexual taboo. Sex, overwritten and undercooked, is where “opulent hips slithered like a knowing snake until she impaled herself upon his rock-hard member with a deep sigh of joy.” Even the references to African spirituality seem skin-deep and perfunctory, revealing yet another writer too entranced by the myth of black cultural primitivism to see the brainpower behind it.With Ines of My Soul one had the sense that the author was trying to structure a story around facts, dates, incidents, and real people. Here it is the reverse, resulting in a book one second-guesses at every turn. Of course there will be a forbidden love. Betrayal. Incest. Heartbreak. Insanity. Violence. And in the end the island in the novel's title remains legend. Fittingly so, because to reach the Island Beneath the Sea, one would have had to dive deep. Allende barely skims the surface.Marlon James's recent novel, The Book of Night Women was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Allende's survival song
As a storyteller, Isabel Allende is concerned with the most universal of themes: spirituality, motherhood, love. And in Island Beneath the Sea, her first work of fiction since 2006, she asks us to confront a fundamental need that, for most, is taken entirely for granted: freedom—its cost, worth and meaning.
The novel follows the life of Tété, a slave in the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) at the turn of the 19th century. Her master is Toulouse Valmorain, a sugarcane plantation owner. Throughout their inexorably intertwined lives, he depends on Tété to care for his ailing, insufferable wife; act as a mother to his son; and satisfy his sexual desires, a horrific chore that leads to their bastard child—the beautiful Rosette, whom Tété loves unconditionally, in spite of her painful genesis.
After the death of Valmorain’s wife, during the slave rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture, Tété saves her master’s life: She warns him that the plantation will be burned by rebels, and they flee to Cuba, then New Orleans. As a condition for her favor, Tété asks Valmorain to sign a paper granting freedom to her and Rosette. He agrees, although it takes years for the promise to be realized.
Despite the tragic nature of the story, there are uplifting moments in Island Beneath the Sea, especially when Allende writes about female self-reliance and the power of Tété’s faith in the loa of Voodoo. Also deeply affecting are her portrayal of the madness of racism and the warped societal codes it engenders.
Island Beneath the Sea is classic Allende—sensual, gripping and infused with a touch of magic. And though she lives through many heartbreaking moments, Tété is nothing if not a survivor and an inspiration. She will take her place alongside her many literary sisters: Blanca Trueba, Eliza Sommers and the long line of resilient female characters from Allende’s boundless imagination.