Why You Should Read This: ‘The House of the Spirits’

Isabel Allende’s attempt to make legend from one’s story is the California Book Club’s March 2023 selection.

the house of the spirits, isabel allende

The House of the Spirits is Isabel Allende’s first novel, and what a way to begin. Originally developed as a letter to her dying grandfather, it is a book that blurs all sorts of boundaries: between naturalism and magical realism, fiction and family history. In part, this is because Allende followed her instincts; having not written long-form fiction previously helped her to steer clear of preconceptions, to let her imagination go wherever it might. All the same, she was not a novice author; she had worked as a journalist and written children’s books.

She was also in the right place at the right time.

This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.

Allende was a cousin to Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile from 1970 to 1973. After he was overthrown in a U.S.-assisted coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, she went into exile, living in Venezuela for 13 years before eventually relocating to Marin County. She has described this experience as central to the process of becoming a writer. Certainly, it’s a component of her debut. Whatever else it is—and it is many things—The House of the Spirits is a political novel, spanning four generations in a country much like Chile, an allegory of events in the author’s life.

And yet, The House of the Spirits is not a work of autobiographical fiction; more accurately, it is an attempt to make legend from one’s story, to enlarge (as it were) the narrative. At the novel’s center are a couple of key notions: the importance of family, which can be both beneficial and toxic, and a sense of national identity. For Allende’s characters, such elements are inextricable; the family is involved in public life. Still, there is a mythic aspect to her perspective. “The point,” she writes, “was not to die, since death came anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle.”

And how else do we survive except in story? Even (or especially) when we recognize that all stories inevitably dissipate? This is the faith at the center of Allende’s novel, that in keeping the stories, in recording them, we remake history by reclaiming, for the moment, anyway, public and private narratives. The House of the Spirits is an epic; it is a novel about identity and place. It is also a book of resistance, as all essential books must be. In its pages, we follow a family, the del Valles, through despair and triumph. The stain of history becomes a tragic force.

But running through the novel always is the belief that, in one way or another, everyone is bound together, through the narratives they represent. It’s a double-edged sword—a lot of bad things happen, a lot of betrayal and sin. Still, Allende insists, in what we might read as a statement of her intentions, “It would be difficult for me to avenge all those who should be avenged, because my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite. I have to break that terrible chain. I want to think that my task is life and that my mission is not to prolong hatred but simply to fill these pages.”•

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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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