Isabel Allende has established herself as one of the most consummate of all modern storytellers, a reputation that is confirmed in her novel Portrait in Sepia
. Allende offers a compelling saga of the turbulent history, lives and loves of late 19th-century Chile, drawing on characters from her earlier novels, The House of Spirits
and Daughter of Fortune
The book's heroine is Aurora del Valle, who "came into the world one Tuesday in the autumn of 1880, in San Francisco". As Aurora sets out to retell her own history and that of her family, she admits "there are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain". In typical Allende fashion, Portrait in Sepia is crammed with love, desire, tragedy and dark family secrets, all played out against the dramatic backdrop of revolutionary Chile. Aurora's mother is a Chilean-Chinese beauty, whilst her father is a dissolute scion of the wealthy and powerful del Valle family. At the heart of Aurora's slow, painful recreation of her childhood towers one of Allende's greatest fictional creations, the heroine's grandmother, Paulina del Valle. An "astute, bewigged Amazon with a gluttonous appetite", Paulina holds both the del Valle family and Allende's novel together, as she presides over Aurora's adolescence in a haze of pastries, taffeta and overweening love.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is Allende's decision to turn her heroine into a photographer, bringing together the written word and the photograph as a way of holding onto the past: "through photography and the written word I try desperately to conquer the transitory nature of my existence, to trap moments before they evanesce, to untangle the confusion of my past". There is little confusion in Allende's elegantly crafted and hugely enjoyable novel. --Jerry Brotton
‘Though its story is the life of Aurora del Valle, a privileged young girl growing up in 19th-century Chile, its subject is history, and the way in which the lives of people and the lives of countries exist in uneasy limbo, caught between the shadows of the past and the mysteries of the future. It’s a world of secrets and uneasy truces; all that is certain is death, and all that is valuable is love.’ Jeremy Poolman, Daily Mail
‘If you were thrilled by “The House of the Spirits”, you’ll love this.’ Marie Claire
‘A wonderful, wide-ranging story, which moves back to Chile, and is told in a clever mix of first and third person. Allende’s dramatic descriptions of hand-to-hand combat and bloody battle scenes are every bit as vivid and physical as her descriptions of wild passionate love-making. A compulsively readable, colourful, informative and entertaining novel.’ Sunday Tribune