Top critical review
9 people found this helpful
Slaves and Pirates in the Caribbean and Louisiana
on 1 May 2013
I loved Isabel Allende's early novels (up to and including The Infinite Plan and her heartbreaking memoir, Paula): she has a knack for creating wonderfully vivid, complex characters, wonderful stories teetering on the brink of magical realism but still believable, and brilliant settings. And in her early works she also had most original plots. In her more recent novels (largely historical novels with a strong romantic component), however, Allende has tended to resort to plots that make a good romantic adventure story but are rather low on subtlety, and on slightly cliched characters: the brave, devoted and poor young heroine, the reckless young lover, the bold courtesan, the villainous and lecherous older man, the overweight dowager figure. And 'Island Beneath the Sea' is no exception. Set in the Caribbean and later in Louisiana from the period just before the French Revolution until the 1820s, it is a rattling good adventure story, with plenty of sex and romance, but is packed with historical and romantic cliches.
Toulouse Valmorain, a poor Parisian aristocrat, comes to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to run a sugar plantation. He does well, makes his fortune, and also becomes a regular lover of Saint-Domingue's most beautiful courtesan, Violette Boisier, a clever woman of mixed race who has managed her business so that she can live in luxury. However, Toulouse realizes fairly soon that he must marry, and selects an elegant young Spanish woman, Eugenia Garcia, to be his wife. He hires Zarite (known as Tete), a young girl born into slavery, as Eugenia's maid. Tete is the leading character for much of the novel, some of which is narrated by her in the first person, some of which is told in the third person. Tete has a hard life. Her mistress suffers severe depression, and after several miscarriages and the birth of her only child, a son called Maurice, goes mad. At the age of 15, Tete is raped by her master, and thereafter has to serve as his concubine, bearing him two children. The first is taken away from her, though she is allowed to bring up the second, a daughter, Rosette. Tete has to work extremely hard, and is not taught to read, write or cook. And when her mistress dies, she is totally at the mercy of Toulouse. She keeps cheerful through a short but passionate affair with Gambo (a slave who runs away to join the rebel slaves planning to destroy the French rulers of Saint-Domingue), through her love for her daughter and for Toulouse's son Maurice, who she is nurse to, through her belief in a powerful mother goddess (Allende is as keen on these as Alice Walker, if not keener) and her belief that one day she will win her freedom. And when the slave rebels attack, and Tete chooses to help her master escape and go with him and her children (first to Cuba, then to New Orleans) rather than join the rebels, she believes she has the weapon she needs to get her freedom - she has saved Toulouse's life so he has to help her. But will Toulouse let her go? And how will Tete fare alone? What will happen to Violette Boisier, who has come to New Orleans to begin a new life as well, and can she help Tete? Without spoiling too much, safe to say there's a great many complications, a fair amount of misery for Tete when Toulouse marries for the second time to a tyrannical French Creole, and a Romeo and Juliet-style romance when Maurice falls passionately in love with the one girl he can never have as his wife.
It's all very engaging and entertaining - but I never found the novel went all that deep. There is a lot of interesting historical information slipped into the book (albeit in a rather wooden way at times), and some engaging characters. I particularly liked Violette Boisier, and the love of her life Etienne Relais, a French captain, the French doctor Parmentier and his partner Adele (Adele is coloured, so in the unpleasant society in which they live they can't marry), Toulouse's intellectual son Maurice and the saintly priest Pere Antoine. But too many of the characters are one-dimensional. Toulouse, for example, starts off in Part I as a pasteboard villain, with gargantuan appetites, and metamorphizes in the New Orleans scenes into a henpecked husband. Sancho Garcia, his brother-in-law, is fun, but behaves like a pantomime Don Giovanni, albeit with a kinder heart. Hortense, Toulouse's second wife is simply horrible, and Allende goes right over the top describing her weight gains. Gambo is a hero straight out of the most one-dimensional type of adventure film (and disappears from the plot with great rapidity) and Allende never really bothers to bring Tete's second lover, Zacharie, to life - I wasn't even sure if he was meant to be a rogue or a good man. Tete herself (as the critic of the New York Times noted) is a problem: I find it hard to believe that any slave who'd suffered such cruelty would be so serene and saintly, and her frequent invocations to the mother goddess Erzulie sounded more New Age than 19th-century. I sympathized with Tete but never felt I really 'knew' her as a character. And her reaction to a tragedy towards the end of the book was unbelievable - she seemed way too calm. Also problematic was the cliched nature of the world that Allende had created. While she brought the landscape of both Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and New Orleans well to life, the social life of the upper-class characters, all wigs, tights, corsets, elaborate furnishings and huge banquets, was depicted in a rather sugary stylized way (something she always managed to avoid in her earlier novels). The slaves were also stereotyped - all voodoo worshippers who liked nothing better than to do voodoo dances whenever they had a chance, and perform strange rites. And there were some pacing issues - the early scenes in New Orleans seemed to go on for ever, the scenes involving the pirates seemed to have been chucked in so Allende could get a mention of pirates into the book, and the tragic romance of Maurice and its aftermath started far too near the end of the book, so that it was coming to its conclusion virtually before it had got underway (and I think Allende put in the dramatic event towards the end of the book because she needed to end the novel and wasn't sure how to with so many loose ends left).
I'd recommend this book as a pleasant light read, which will give you some interesting information about life in the French colonies in the Caribbean and in Louisiana in the early 19th century. But I didn't find it all that satisfying either in terms of character or plot in the end. I wish Allende would go back to the more subtle explorations of human nature of her South American novels. Interestingly I see her most recent novel is a present-day story, based in Chile, so I'll be interested to see what that is like. I think she may have exhausted her vein of inspiration with historical romances for the time being.