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I think that he put off his flight for me, for the way we looked at each other, the messages of little stones in the henhouse, the treats he stole for me in the kitchen, the anticipation of embracing each other that was like the prickling of pepper over all our bodies, and for those rare moments when we were alone and could touch.  “We will be free, Zarité, and we will be together forever.  I love you more than anyone, more than my father and his five wives, who were my mothers, more than my brothers and my sisters, more than all of them together, but not more than my honor.”  A warrior does what he has to do, that is more important than love, I understand that.  We women love more and for longer, too.  I also know that.  Gambo was prideful, and there is no greater danger for a slave than pride.

(from Island Beneath the Sea, pages 121-122)

Isabel Allende never fails to remind me why I love historical fiction and makes me question why I haven’t already read everything she’s written.  I’ve read three of her books now, and they always teach me something new and push me to do some research.  Island Beneath the Sea is a brilliantly crafted novel with much attention to historical detail, and Allende successfully tells a story about slavery and colonialism through the eyes of several very different characters, from a slave and a plantation owner to a prostitute and a soldier.

Island Beneath the Sea is an ambitious novel, but Allende makes writing about a complicated event in history look easy.  The story opens in Saint-Domingue, a French colony that eventually will become Haiti, the world’s first independent black republic.  Toulouse Valmorain travels to the island from France in 1770 to assume control of his father’s sugar plantation, Saint-Lazare.  He is a stylish man with an interest in books and intellectual conversation, and it takes him some time to adapt to the hot and humid climate and the fact that he now owns hundreds of African slaves.  He puts a mulatto overseer, Prosper Cambray, in charge, and while he does not support the harsh treatment of slaves who do not easily submit to their fate, Valmorain still views them as property and does not question the brutal punishments inflicted by Cambray.  After years spent getting the plantation under control and amassing a lot of money, Valmorain travels to Cuba for business and eventually brings home a Spanish bride with some serious mental problems.

Through his dealings with a mulatta prostitute in Le Cap, Valmorain purchases Zarité (Tété), who will live in his home and care for his wife and son.  Tété is the center of the novel, and Allende allows only her voice to be heard through the first person viewpoint.  In these chapters, many years have passed, and Tété looks back on the events of her life.  Tété, a slave born to an African mother and a white sailor, has lived a hard life, yet she discovers the power of love, develops a true affection for her master’s son, and continues to look toward the day when she will know freedom.  She doesn’t have to deal with the backbreaking work of cutting the sugar cane, but she is at the mercy of Valmorain, who is both attracted to her and dependent upon her.  The African drums and voodoo help her to survive.

Spanning many decades, Island Beneath the Sea shows in great detail the horrors of the plantations and civil war.  Allende writes about the complex class system of Saint-Domingue, comprised of grand blancs (rich whites), petits blancs (poor whites), affranchis (free people of color), and the slaves.  There is an uprising that pits the whites and the affranchis against one another, and the slaves — whose population greatly exceeds that of the whites — lead their own rebellion.  The French Revolution plays a major role in the uprising, with decrees giving affranchis political rights, a push to abolish slavery in Saint-Domingue, and some colonists wanting to declare independence from France and align themselves with Britain.  I knew nothing of this history before reading this book, and Allende does a great job weaving these events into the story.

Allende puts readers right into the action, allowing them to feel the fear of the plantation owner and his slave as they flee from the rebels and the tension of the chaos in Le Cap when civil war erupts.  She shows both the good and the bad in each of her characters, and focusing on one plantation, one master, and one slave makes the story more personal and emotional.  She takes readers on a journey from Saint-Domingue to Cuba to Louisiana, enriching the pages with history and descriptions of society, culture, and setting.  This book will break your heart with the detailed accounts of cruelty and you will question how people can treat human beings so horribly and allow slavery to continue into the present.  Tété’s plight will make your heart ache, but Allende’s prose is controlled so that it doesn’t become melodramatic.  Island Beneath the Sea strikes the right balance between history and emotion, and it was both hard to read and hard to put down.

Check out my reviews of other Isabel Allende books:

Inés of My Soul

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in the blog tour for Island Beneath the Sea. To follow the tour, which includes reviews of other Allende novels, click here.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Island Beneath the Sea from HarperCollins for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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