Love and war shape everything in Isabel Allende’s sweeping, splendid new novel, “A Long Petal of the Sea.” This is her best book in years, one she has poured all of her prodigious passion and talent into, perhaps because it tells a story so close to her heart.
It’s the exodus saga of a Spanish family swept up in that country’s horrific civil war, then forced to flee the Nationalists’ vengeance after Franco crushes the country’s Republican defenders in 1939. After experiencing abject misery in concentration camps on the French border, they and 2,000 other Spanish refugees are able to escape to faraway Chile on a ship commissioned by that country’s great poet, Pablo Neruda. Chile, which Neruda called “the long petal of sea and wine and snow,” becomes their beloved home, but eventually it, too, slides into bloody repression.
Allende eloquently schools us in those terrible times, taking us deep into the history and heart of the country she grew up in. Here there is no magical realism, the hallmark of her first and most famous novel, “The House of the Spirits.” This is bald, bloody realism.
Yet the novel is also powerfully romantic.
Roser Bruguera is a ragged Spanish goatherd rescued from poverty by a wealthy benefactor who soon recognizes that she is a musical prodigy. When he dies, she moves in with the family of her music professor and falls in love with their son, Guillem Dalmau, a hotheaded Republican warrior. Pregnant with his child when he is blown to pieces in a trench, she is forced to flee with half a million other Republican refugees to France, which herds them into squalid camps where many starve, freeze to death or die of disease.
Eventually, Roser and Guillem’s brother, Victor, a taciturn medic who has somehow survived the war’s worst moments, find each other. They enter into a marriage of convenience so they can travel together with Roser’s newborn son to Chile, where they plan to divorce.
The arc of this marriage, which begins as a strategic transaction and over the years evolves in complex and not always happy ways, is the sprawling novel’s primary story line. Roser and Victor both take other lovers, but decide to stay married.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Victor yearns to visit Spain, and Roser reluctantly agrees to accompany him to the scene of so much horror and pain. “Any separation, however brief, made them anxious,” Allende writes in a passage that melds the novel’s twin stories of love and war. “It was to tempt fate; they might never get together again. Entropy is the natural law of the universe, everything tends toward disorder, to break down, to disperse. People get lost … feelings fade, and forgetfulness slips into lives like mist. It takes heroic willpower just to keep everything in place. Those are a refugee’s forebodings, said Roser. No, they’re the forebodings of someone in love, Victor corrected her.”
This had to have been a difficult book to write. Among its nonfictional characters is Allende’s cousin Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist president, who died by suicide in September 1973 during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup and whom the writer portrays as a flawed idealist. Her family was endangered and deeply affected by the repression that followed.
Allende’s occasional tendency to sentimentalize is entirely absent from this story. Absent, too is any romanticizing of war — she chronicles Republican as well as Nationalist atrocities — and love — betrayals and mistakes are rife even with good people.
Nor is there political proselytizing. But the story’s focus on the plight and resilience of refugees is not just historical, but a matter that endures, worldwide, to this day.
A Long Petal of the Sea
By: Isabel Allende, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 318 pages, $28.