Even at 78, global bestseller Isabel Allende (75 million books in 40 languages to date) starts a new book every year on January 8, unless she’s still finishing one.
Her latest novel, Violeta, is the story of a woman older than Allende, but with many parallel events in their lives: “I came into the world on a stormy Friday in 1920, the year of the plague.
The scourge at the time was the Spanish flu pandemic which arrived late in South America. The turbulent story meticulously ends 100 years later during another plague (Covid), with Violeta gently hallucinating on her deathbed.
Allende seems to believe in the advice to write about what you know, and does so with great skill. Violeta’s life may differ from hers in detail, but the important landmarks are there, including the death of her daughter. The loss of Allende’s daughter, Paula, who died at the age of 29, was the major tragedy of her own life. Violeta’s story is the life of a strong, independent woman who escaped from the dominant patriarchal society by earning her living independently.
Allende’s work is a curious blend of high romanticism and social realism, conventional storytelling in a realistic socio-historical context. Its great strength is in prioritizing the matriarchs, the world of women that is so often ignored by male writers.
Allende sets his story in an unnamed South American country that could be Peru, Chile or Venezuela. She herself was born in Peru, grew up in Chile and spent part of her early married life in political exile in Venezuela. His knowledge of 20th century South American society rings true on all levels, urban and rural.
The first-person narrative is directed at Camilo, obviously a younger man with close family ties, who we soon learn, through his asides, is his grandson, 50 years his junior.
The most important incident of her childhood was the arrival of an English governess, Miss Josephine Taylor, an advanced suffragette, whose mandate it was to teach manners to the spoiled brat that Violeta, the first born daughter of the family after five boys, had become. When financial ruin forces the family to flee the city, they take refuge in the farm of the parents of the governess’ radical friend and lover, Teresa Rivas. Teresa’s parents are teachers who travel the country from farm to farm giving the children a free education.
An early marriage to a German neighbor proves a mistake, and
Violeta flees with a dashing young pilot, Julian Bravo, one of the many colorful characters in her life.
They have two children, but the passion quickly turns sour and Violeta has to fight, literally, for her freedom. Their daughter, spoiled by her father, turns to drugs and dies in her late twenties, the same age as Allende’s daughter, Paula. Like its creator, Violeta does not give up on life but happily remarries at the start of her 70s.
Allende’s best quality as a writer, evident from his 1982 debut novel, The House of Spirits, is his ability to make history personal, to tell a story that spans the years with ease, and to present a cast fascinating cast of characters from all walks of life. rows, holding the reader’s interest until the very last page.
- Violeta by Isabel Allende
- Bloomsbury Publishing UK, €20.10