There are books that slow your heart with their first lines. I wonder if the phenomenon is observable from the outside: that slowing of the breath, the untensing of the muscles as the reader, seeming to recognize something true, lowers her defenses and offers a particular, sacred kind of trust.
When I opened a library copy of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits in my college dorm room many years ago in snowy Gambier, Ohio, my blinking slowed. My back slackened against the hard concrete wall. I pulled my knees up on my bed and found myself in a pew in Father Restrepo’s fiery Holy Thursday Mass in San Sebastián.
It might have started with a simple recognition of the Spanish-language cadence, which rings pure in Magda Bodin’s translation, or with the grand narrative syntax that tendrils out in multiple directions all at once. Allende’s style might be described as maximalist, but as a young reader, I knew nothing of such things. I merely recognized it as full, an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone in the world of a story. Just like the old house itself, Allende’s narrative horizon expands every way you look.
There are books that find you when you need them. Miles and miles of golden cornfields separated my tiny college hamlet from the nearest town. As a first-generation college student, I was blundering through that first semester. It was my first time away from my family’s boisterous apartment in New York City, with its blaring TVs and constant rotation of visitors. It was the first time I looked up and saw the stars.
What most delighted me then, and what most delights me now, is the sheer and familiar crowdedness of The House of the Spirits. I recognized something of the life I’d left behind in my apartment building in Morningside Heights: it was in the characters who burst in from the margins and stayed with you always.
Who can forget the enormous, galloping dog, Barrabás, with his “seemingly unlimited capacity for growth” and his bottomless appetite for flowers? Or the sweet-natured Nana, with her collection of terrifying disguises? Couldn’t there be an entire novel about the kinky, scheming Count Jean de Satigny? Or about the fierce, unquelled desire of Tía Férula and the yellow taffeta she wore in her last years of isolation? Or about my favorite, then and now, the prostitute Tránsito Soto, ever entrepreneurial, ever cunning in her stewardship of Hotel Christopher Columbus (“Good girls sleep with men for free, so you can just imagine the competition”). To me, this crowdedness felt true in a new way, so different from the novels of alienated isolation I had read for school, like The Catcher in the Rye.
I had not been to South America, and I had not yet begun in earnest the work of learning about my own family’s Caribbean history, entrammeled as it was by the brutal dictatorships of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and the Castros in Cuba. I didn’t know yet that the Mirabal sisters sang to their husbands across the yard of a prison camp, just as Alba does in Allende’s depiction of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile.
It was not until many years later that I recognized how much of the story was a mourning song to the lives and memories lost to authoritarianism. I marveled on that first read at the quiet, pervasive presence of magic in the del Valle and Trueba household, the severed head stored in a hatbox, the premonitions and the hauntings. I marvel now at Allende’s steady gaze and her unflinching portrait of an era of upheaval in a Latin America forced to grapple more openly with racism, sexism, and class divisions in the global aftershocks of the Second World War.
There are books that offer you something new each time you read them. In the epilogue, Alba writes, “I want to think that my task is life and that my mission is not to prolong hatred but simply to fill these pages.” As a writer, I read The House of the Spirits now when wrestling words onto the page feels impossible and the world seems to be falling apart. That passage recasts the work of writing as both humble and vital: the writer as a witness of record, the keeper of notebooks that bear witness to life.•
Join us on March 16 at 5 p.m., when Allende will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman to discuss The House of the Spirits. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.