Title: A Long Petal of the Sea
Author: Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
I think it was the year 1997, when I picked up my first Allende – like most readers it was The House of the Spirits and I was fascinated, to the point of being mesmerised. I remember the moment as though it was yesterday. I had borrowed the book from the library, and I started reading it. I left it after twenty pages, but the thought of it being incomplete nagged me end on (those days I would not toss books that didn’t hold my interest). I picked it up again and since then I have never dropped an Allende mid-way.
I had heard a lot of mixed reviews about this one, but of course I had to read it to figure it out for myself. I may not have loved it as her other books, but to be honest, I enjoyed the read. A lot. Historical fiction isn’t my cup of tea, but this one had me by the throat, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages.
The time is late 1930s. Civil War has gripped Spain. General Franco and his fascist regime have succeeded in overthrowing the government and hundreds and thousands of people are overnight forced to flee their homeland, over to the French border. In all of this, there is Roser, a pregnant young girl, whose life is closely intertwined with Victor Dalmau, an army doctor, and the brother of her deceased love. They have to marry to be able to survive and that’s when the story begins.
Victor and Roser embark on SS Winnipeg, a ship that will carry them to Chile, and chartered by Pablo Neruda. Their trials and tribulations have only begun. At the same time, the book is mainly about hope and freedom and once again speaks of the times we live in. It is about humanity and how we find comfort in the strangest of places.
The book starts of in the 30s and ends in the 90s. In all of this, not once I was bored or thought I couldn’t take it anymore. There is a lot of detailing, and Allende is well, known for it. However, the detailing according to me is much needed – including Neruda’s role in the war, and what it did for so many refugees.
The translation is on-point and perfect. So much so that it doesn’t feel that you are reading a translated work. It is that natural and precise. A Long Petal of the Sea captures the lives of ordinary people caught in circumstances that they didn’t want to be a part of. It shows us the mirror to what war does and how there is sometimes no surviving it, though you think you have.
Allende’s prose is glorious, and exacting. The book travels from Spain to France and Chile and Venezuela, and each detail is well-cared for. More than anything she speaks of a better tomorrow, the one that we all need to hope for and believe in even though it is tough to do so.