Friday, 5 September 2014

Book Review: Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende research on family history can be quite fascinating, especially when well-kept secrets are finally revealed or unexpectedly come to light. Consequently, it’s no wonder that genealogy is such a popular hobby these days! But however much information we gather about our ancestors, the picture that we get will never show them in their true colours. Instead it will inevitably be yellowed, probably even blurred and faded... just like the picture that we have of ourselves. The protagonist of Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende comes to the conclusion when she puts together the life stories of three generations that led to her existence and that made her the vague person who she is.  

Isabel Allende, in full Isabel Allende Llona, was born in Lima, Peru, in August 1942 into a family of Chilean diplomats and politicians. In the 1960s she worked for the United Nations, married and had children. Being the cousin of Salvador Allende, the President of Chile until the coup d’état of 1973, she fled to Venezuela following death threats. There she got into journalism and began writing fiction. The writer’s debut novel was The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus) which was refused by several Latin-American publishers and became an immediate success when a Spanish publisher brought it out in 1982. Others of her notable works, which often have a strong autobiographical touch, are Eva Luna (1987), Paula (1994), Portrait in Sepia (Retrato en sepia: 2000), City of the Beasts (La ciudad de las bestias: 2002), Inés of My Soul (Inés del alma mía: 2006), and Maya's Notebook (El Cuaderno de Maya: 2011). Her latest published novel is the murder mystery Ripper (El juego de Ripper: 2014). In 1989 Isabel Allende settled down in San Rafael, California, USA, with her second husband where she still lives. 

It’s thirty-year-old Aurora del Valle who puts together a Portrait in Sepia of herself with the poorly defined and incomplete pieces of information about parents and grandparents. Aurora is born in San Francisco’s Chinatown on a Tuesday morning in the autumn of 1880. Her mother is Lynn Sommers, the young, beautiful and rather dull daughter of English-Chilean Eliza Sommers and her Chinese husband Tao Chien, the community’s most renowned zhong-yi and much respected for his medical expertise by Chinese colleagues as well as western doctors. However, he isn’t able to save his daughter who dies a few hours after giving birth. Aurora’s natural father is Matías Rodrígues de Santa Cruz, the eldest son of wealthy Paulina del Valle and Feliciano Rodrígues de Santa Cruz, but he seduced Lynn following a bet with his friends and didn’t think of marrying her as she was convinced that he would because her mind was full of the cheap romances that her grandaunt Rose Sommers wrote. In his stead cousin Severo del Valle from Valparaíso in Chile, who stays with his aunt Paulina while being trained to be a lawyer, fell in love with Lynn and in the end he succeeded in persuading her to marry him to give the child his honourable name. When Lynn dies, Severo is desperate. He decides to seek death joining the Chilean army engaged in a war with Peru and Bolivia at the time and leaves Aurora with her maternal grandparents. The paternal grandmother, Paulina del Valle, who refused to take any responsibility for the illegitimate child of her son, takes it into her head to raise her granddaughter as soon as she learns that Lynn is dead, but Severo del Valle as the girl’s father before the law has left detailed instructions and neither Eliza Sommers, nor Tao Chien are willing to give Aurora up.
Five years pass and one day Eliza Sommers shows up at the residence of Paulina del Valle with Aurora to leave her there because her husband was killed and she needs to take care of his funeral in Hong Kong. Paulina del Valle, who has been widowed for a couple of months too, is delighted to get her will at last and to raise the girl. She decides to sell her house in San Francisco and to return to her native Chile after a tour of Europe to distract the fearsome girl who is haunted by nightmares. Before leaving, Paulina’s loyal major-domo of many years, Frederick Williams, proposes to her and she accepts the marriage of convenience with the man who will pass as a British noble from then on. In 1886 they arrive in Santiago where Severo del Valle has meanwhile recovered from the loss of a leg, married his incredibly fertile cousin Nívea and settled down as a lawyer. Aurora stays with her grandmother and growing up witnesses the turmoil of recurring revolutions and civil wars in Chile.

Already the first sentence of Portrait in Sepia reveals that the protagonist herself sets out to tell the story of her life and of her origins as far as she managed to find them out. Isabel Allende skilfully embedded the crude facts of personal history into picturesque and lively images. At the same time the author dwelled in several clichés like just for instance teenage girls who blindly run after their loved ones leaving behind their families, even countries without a second thought and a much idolized young beauty who is empty-headed and seduced by a spoilt young man from a respected family. Such stereotypes use to annoy me because repeating them means keeping them alive, even when they are believed to be long outdated. Fortunately, Isabel Allende made the main female characters, notably Paulina del Valle, Severo del Valle’s wife Nívea and the protagonist herself, strong, intelligent and active women. All in all the novel is a slow-paced first-person narrative which unfolds for the greatest part chronologically and which is always interweaved with the true historical background. Not being a historian, nor otherwise well acquainted with the history of California and Chile from 1862 through 1910, I dare not to judge whether everything is based on thorough research, but at least I didn’t stumble across any obvious inconsistencies. The language of Isabel Allende is rich in colourful images and yet unpretentious. It’s also sufficiently simple for me to be able to enjoy reading the Spanish original.

I admit that Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende probably isn’t the most intriguing and worthwhile work of this enormously popular Chilean author, but I still took great pleasure in the read. Moreover, it gave me an idea of the turbulent history of Chile which is quite a lot considering that I knew virtually nothing about it. And it goes without saying that I recommend the book to you.

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