I absolutely loved this novel. It has been a while since I have read something that kept me so engaged from beginning to end. As the first Allende novel I have ever read after having her books recommended to me multiple times by various people, I have to say my expectations were absolutely fulfilled.
The plot summary in the “About the Book” section in the back reads as follows:
“The novel spans the years 1770 to 1810, beginning at a time when Haiti was the richest French colony in the New World because of the immense profits from the sugar, coffee, and indigo industries. It continues through a slave rebellion that resulted in the banishment of whites. And it ends in New Orleans on the brink of the agreement between Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte that would result in the Louisiana Purchase.”
Now, I love a good historical novel. Especially one that focuses in on the less explored perspectives of certain historical events. In Island Beneath the Sea, Allende not only explores the Haitian revolution through the eyes of the white land owner who is eventually banished from the island, but also his black slave and her rebellious lover who fights alongside Toussaint – the eventual post-revolt dictator of the island who ends up selling the blacks who fought for freedom alongside him into slavery in order to fund his new kingdom.
Zarité, the young girl slave who is the only voice we hear from in first person at regular intervals in the novel, is a strong, level-headed character who is passionate about her freedom and her children. I found myself relishing her chapters for all the music that they brought to the story. But all the characters were greatly written and developed – Valmorain, Sancho, Hortense, Rosette, Maurice and even “the saint” priest, Pére Antoine.
The story just sings through highs and lows – I can’t say enough good things about it. I always find myself drawn to authors who write with the not-so-secret purpose to rattle the colonial distributions of power in the world. Allende notes, “In all my books I’m drawn to people – not always women, but often women – who are born limited, marginalized, and have to overcome incredible obstacles to own their life.” Indeed, Zarité’s journey falls into this trend as she makes her way from Haiti to Cuba to New Orleans to finally win freedom from her master.
I especially appreciated Allende’s ability to make the cultural locations in the novel active forces in the story. The Haitian revolution was a driving force, as was the culture of upper class New Orleans. I was introduced to the concept of plaçage – a French and Spanish tradition of placing young, mixed (of black & white blood – referred to as mulatto, at that time) women with white men in a formal, unwritten arrangement of safekeeping and loyalty. Since black and white could not legally marry, many young white men of the upper classes sought plaçage out as a feasible option for companionship before legitimate marriage that required that they provide living accommodations to the woman in return for the her loyalty to him.
The book will have you questioning your own moral code and trying to side with the lesser of two evils. It is a book that takes patience at it’s most bitter parts and that will make you laugh at its most entertaining parts – it takes a great author to weave the two together so beautifully. Allende is that great.
Overall Score: Perfect 10.