Friday 25 September 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea? Not my cup of tea.

A Long Petal of the Sea Our book club choice for August was Isabel Allende's A Long Petal of the Sea, published in 2019. Len and Yvonne are fans of the Chilean writer and were keen to read it.

She's a new author for me. Allende's Wikipedia page was encouraging, mentioning magical realism and saying her novels are often based on historical events and real-life individuals. As for A Long Petal of the Sea, it ticked quite a few of my boxes. The opening part is set during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict I know little about, during a period of time that I find fascinating - the 1930s, economic depression, competing ideologies of Marxism and Fascism, the run-up to World War II. With a couple of weeks to spare before book club I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and then sat down to immerse myself in Allende's tome.

It'll be a long time before anyone persuades me to read another of her books. There's nothing wrong with the story, which is a saga stretching over sixty years. It follows Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera as they escape Franco's Spanish military coup and travel to Chile. A further exile is necessary after Pinochet's military coup. Allende says, "This is a story of displacement and love, of sorrow and hope, of a couple trying to find their place in a world in shambles, torn apart by violence", and I can't argue with that.

What was unbearable tho', was the writing style. The narrator likes to give us little hints as to what the future holds for our protagonists, and this device just served to push me out of their world and back into my own. Allende seems unable to decide if she's writing fiction or a non-academic history book. I longed to get to the end, not because I wanted to find out what would happen, but because I wanted to move on to a book that would delight me with its use of language. Before starting I was interested to discover Pablo Neruda's poetry, but now I can't be bothered.

Worst of all the sentences brought to mind those of a Barbara Cartland book I recently read. In the Acknowledgements Allende says, "I have had to imagine very little, because as I was doing the exhaustive research I carry out for each novel, I found I had more than enough material. This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me." That too reminded me of Barbara Cartland and an obituary of her that stated, "Her love stories, usually dictated in one-sentence paragraphs, were .... brisk, researched with historical fervour and seldom cloying." At least Allende's women could look after themselves, and they were seldom virgins.

As for book club, I was the only reader who had a problem with the prose, indeed Bernard, being a non-native English speaker, thought it's phrasing excellent because it was very easy to understand. Yvonne and Susan found elements of it distressing: how one character's illegitimate child was dealt with by the Catholic church, the horror of war and torture. Still, it did provoke a lively discussion, and we all learned a bit more about magic realism.

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