Title: Island Beneath the Sea
Author: Isabel Allende
Rating: 3 stars
Set first against the backdrop of the Haitian Revolution and later in pre-American New Orleans, Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath The Sea is the story of Zarite, a young slave, her master Valmorain, and the various complicated relationships that came out of the slave culture of the late eighteenth century.
The characters are vivid and varied–from the cowardly, oblivious Valmorain to the seductive and frivolous yet loyal and kind mulatta Violette, from the hot-blooded young warrior Gambo to the daring doctor Parmentier. At the center of it all is Zarite, a slave who is bought by Valmorain at the age of 9, and for the next three decades is raped, degraded, and lives at his mercy, while raising two children and trying to forget the loss of another.
At times, Island Beneath the Sea is sweepingly historical, as it details the lives of real revolutionaries and historical persons and gives an account of the Haitian Revolution. But it always comes back to the personal narrative of Zarite, and it is here where the novel works best. Zarite’s story is that of a slave yearning for freedom, a mother anxious for her children, a woman learning how to love. Nothing revolutionary per se, but it was a great way to tie the greater themes of the novel together, and add some humanity to the sometimes overwhelming scope of the historical plot.
There are elements here that you find in a lot of Caribbean fiction–the mad (white) wife, voodoo conflicting with and adapting around Christianity–and I certainly think this book will appeal more to readers who are fans of books by authors such as Jean Rhys and Maryse Conde. I found it a little flat. Despite being interested in the characters and aesthetically pleased by the setting, I was rarely moved or invested in Island Beneath the Sea. The ending in particular felt rushed and a little strange–here be spoilers I can’t figure out how to totally avoid–incest is brushed off as pretty much no big deal because one partner is white and the other is biracial, and nobody seems overly surprised or bothered. It was an odd resolution, and I felt like there was much more book to be told, or that the book we were presented with turned out to be mostly prelude to a story that was never fully explored. It was unsatisfying, and certainly not the best Allende has to offer, but certainly worth reading if you’re interested in the history or the setting.