This is a frustrating review to write, because I had just finished writing it, pressed 'save', went to my dashboard and it had entirely disappeared. It's taken me weeks to rewrite, because I do hate starting from scratch again. It's especially difficult because the review I had written finished off with something like: "this is a difficult book to write about, because I had a strong emotional reaction to it". So maybe I should just work backwards from there.
I had a very strong emotional reaction to the book because the events at the end of it were so horrific- basically it covers Pinochet's rise to power (in fictionalised form), and the characters in the book were so heavily affected by it, especially the narrator, Alba. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende focuses on a family in Chile in the 20th century. They're a wealthy family, and the patriarch is involved in conservative politics, but the rest of the family (including the matriarch, Clara) tend more towards socialism and have links to the socialist party, and are therefore at risk from Pinochet. The tensions in the family (and by extension within Chile) lend a lot of drama to the book. Clara and Esteban's different outlooks on life cause great rifts between them, but despite the tensions there is also a lot of love in the family. Alba, Clara and Esteban's granddaughter, is largely brought up by Clara but loves both her grandparents, and the book is her chronicling of the family's history.
While I was emotionally attached to the characters in the book, I struggled at the start to read through the chapters about Esteban Trueba, the grandfather. His main characteristic is his anger, and though in many ways his anger is understandable, when he starting raping the young servant girls it got pretty hard to sympathise with him. While the book is largely driven by Alba's love for her grandfather, it's also very clear that she doesn't always approve of him, and she doesn't usually take his side, which adds an interesting dynamic to the book.
But one thing which I really noticed was how well the magic realism and family saga genres work together. Something about the telling of family histories, which often end up embellished and are bound to be partial, works well with a little bit of the fantastic for me. I think in this book the earliest parts of the story are the most fantastical, and since those parts are set at around the turn of the 20th century, a time which always seems a bit strange and sepia tinted to me, the magic blended nicely into the imagining of history. I know Allende is not the only writer to use these two genres together, it's a similar blend in 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and maybe it is actually quite common? I haven't really read enough to know. All I know is that I thought it worked well as a way of telling a family saga story, and though I started off reading this book feeling that I was not in the mood for magic realism, I ended up enjoying it.
Clearly I am a bit behind with my century of books, I still have one decade to go and only a couple of days left in the year! The 1990s might be a bit late I'm afraid. I will be writing up my annual list of books read, and picking out my favourites, soon, but the 1990s post is likely to come in 2013. I also have a new challenge planned for next year, so I will post about that too.
I'm also a bit behind in wishing everyone a happy Christmas! I hope you had a good one and have a happy New Year as well.