The House of the Spirits is Isabel Allende’s first book, published in 1982. In interviews, Allende said her book began as a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather. The letter became so long, with so many colorful stories of her family, that Allende realized it wasn’t a letter anymore, but the first draft of a novel. The final book serves as a fictional account of her family’s history, encompassing four generations, set in an unnamed country, believed to be Chile.
The book falls in the genre of magical realism, a genre common with other Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Paulo Coelho. The plot and cast of characters serve as case studies for conflicts common in the post-colonialism era—power struggles between the wealthy and poor, dictatorship, workers’ rights, and overthrown governments. The book ends when the government is overthrown by a military coup.
The House of the Spirits is narrated by two characters–Alba, born in the final of four generations, who uncovers her family’s history by reading her grandmother’s journals. On page 85, Alba explains how she has access to this information:
“She (Clara) filled innumerable notebooks with her private observations, recording the events of those years, thanks to which they were not erased by the mists of forgetfulness and I can now use them to reclaim her memory.”
Alba continues as the primary narrator throughout the book, telling the stories of her great-grandmother Nivea, grandmother Clara, and mother Blanca’s generations, writing in the third person. Alba sparingly uses the first person to represent herself as the storyteller during the first three generations, then more prominently at the end of the book when her character’s story begins.
The second narrator is Alba’s grandfather, Esteban Trueba. He narrates short passages of the story, beginning with his younger years when he asks Alba’s grandmother, Clara, to marry him.
Trueba is portrayed as the villain, the patron who believes farm workers need a strong hand and authority, not workers’ rights. On page 77, he narrates:
“The peasants were still living exactly as they had in colonial times, and had not heard of unions, or Sundays off, or the minimum wage; but now delegates from the new-formed parties of the left, disguised as evangelicals, were beginning to infiltrate the haciendas, with a Bible tucked under one armpit and a Marxist pamphlet under the other, simultaneously preaching, the abstemious life and revolution or death.”
The reader experiences events from the point of view of a man who rapes his farm workers, prevents them from organizing, and deprives them of necessities in an effort to keep them loyal. He justifies his behavior as his right, because he gives them a place to live, food and work. The central conflict is the tension between him and a changing society of workers who begin to fight for their rights. The secondary conflict is the tension between Trueba and the main women characters who challenge his antiquated ideas.
Occasionally, Esteban Trueba reminds the reader that he is writing the story from the place of an elderly man, collaborating with his granddaughter. For instance, he narrates:
“I went everywhere with only a thick silver cane for support, the same one I use today. My granddaughter says I don’t need it. She says I only use it to emphasize my words.”
Through the characters, readers learn about the struggles between rich and poor in Latin America.
Page 91 details a vivid scene in which Alba’s grandmother, Clara, went out with Clara’s mother to try to do good in the world. Alba sees through this and narrates:
“Despite her tender age and complete ignorance of matters of this world, Clara grasped the absurdity of the situation and wrote in her notebook about the contrast of her mother and her friends, in their fur coats and suede boots, speaking of oppression, equality, and rights to a sad, resigned group of hard-working women in denim aprons, their hands red with chilblains.”
Fast forward a generation, Clara is an adult and takes Alba’s mother, Blanca, out for charity events. Page 152:
“…she (Clara) now took Blanca with her on her visits to the poor, weighed down with gifts and comfort. ‘This is to assuage our conscious darling,’ she would explain to Blanca. ‘But it doesn’t help the poor. They don’t need charity, they need justice.’”
Readers learn how the rich and poor experience their world differently after an earthquake. Page 186:
“The country’s ten thousand dead had gone unmourned and uneulogized while the boys went on singing English songs and playing cricket, moved only by reports that reached them, three weeks late, from the British Isles.”
This book influenced me and my writing in several ways. I first read this book in college, and it made me realize how little I knew about Latin American history and the United State’s role in it. I read this book again recently, mainly because the book and the women characters have stuck with me for over a decade. The work of engaging a reader through a book’s characters is no small feat of the author. It takes a lot of work to make a reader care enough to begin and stay with a nearly 500 page book. I read the book again recently to study Allende’s use of strong beginnings, structure, foreshadowing, character development, scene, and narrative arc, and hopefully employ those tools, and her use of them, in my writing. I offer a few examples of her use of storytelling tools below.
Allende’s first paragraph is genius. It reveals who the main narrator is, and sets the framework for the book’s conflict, passage of time, and events that lead the narrator to write the story of her family’s history. The book begins:
“Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterword, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own.”
I noticed the book’s use of foreshadowing. The first example comes from Alba’s narration, and the second comes from Esteban Trueba.
Page 44: “She did not speak again until nine years later, when she opened her mouth to announced that she was planning to be married.”
Page 132: “I wouldn’t have mentioned this episode if Transito Soto hadn’t played such an important role in my life a long time later, because, as I said earlier, I’m not a man for whores.”
A book that spans four generations needs to jump ahead by months or years occasionally. The sentences below indicate a jump in time.
Page 70: “In the course of the next ten years, Esteban Trueba became the most respected patrón in the region.”
Page 119: “Summer came to an end and autumn covered the fields with fire and gold, changing the landscape.”
The House of the Spirits is a storytelling masterpiece. There is much for a writer to gain by studying this book carefully.
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Visit Isabel Allende’s website and purchase her books here: https://www.isabelallende.com/
Watch Isabel Allende’s interview with National Geographic: