Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden.
Stunning, breathtaking, just an absolutely fantastic read. I started Island Beneath the Sea last night and literally could not put it down. I've just turned the last page and am wondering why have I never read Isabel Allende before!?
The novel opens with a prologue in which Zarité expresses her love of dancing.
"..he invited me to lose myself in the music, the way you do in a dream. Dance, dance, Zarité
, the slave who dances is free...while he is dancing, he told me. I have always danced."
Zarité or Teté as she comes to be known, was sold as a slave when she was only a few months old. In 1770 she lives on the island of Saint-Domingue. She is sold again to plantation owner Toulouse Valmorain to look after his wife. Life in the French colony is becoming more and more unsettled. By 1793 the island is extremely dangerous - the blacks have rebelled and are massacring the whites. Valmorain, his family and Teté escape to Cuba and then to Louisiana.
The brief synopsis I've provided doesn't even begin to touch the rich, sweeping saga Allende has written. The story that Allende has woven is simply mesmerizing. But is is the character of Teté that captured me completely -her strength, fortitude, endurance and spirit. Teté is a resilient woman, facing seemingly unbearable situations with quiet dignity. Her life and that of Valmorain are inextricably intertwined as she bears two of his children - the products of repeated sexual violence, beginning when she was eleven. Despite the violence visited upon her, she has an unflagging love for her children and hope for her own future.
But it was the descriptions of the treatment of the slaves that brought tears to my eyes many times. The cavalier and cruel actions by the whites was appalling. Indeed, there were over 60 classifications of mulattoes, based on the amount of white blood.
The supporting characters were no less captivating. Tante Rose, the local healer and voodoo leader, the freedom fighters, including Gambo, Teté's lover and Violette,the mulatto courtesan desired by many. Parmentier, the local white doctor who has secrets of his own. Each one of their stories are rich and vibrant as well.
The Island Beneath the Sea is historical fiction at its' absolute best. The detail was fascinating. I had no idea of the roots of the island we now know as Haiti, the slavery that started long before it reached America and the long war between Spain and France over this small piece of land. Descriptions of the social lives and customs of this time period were incredibly illustrated.
The title? Slaves chose to kill their children and send the to 'the island beneath the sea' rather than have them live as slaves.
Allende's ability to weave factual events with fiction is truly spectacular. Highly, highly recommended.
Read an excerpt of Island Beneath the Sea.