THE ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA by Isabel Allende

Book Quote:

“In the jungle, beneath the thick dome of trees, it grew dark early, and the dawn light came late through the dense fog tangled in the ferns. The day was growing short for Valmorain, who was in a hurry, but eternal for the rest. The only food for the slaves was dried meat with a maize or sweet potato soup and a cup of coffee, handed out at night after they camped. The master had ordered a cube of sugar and a jot of taffia – the cane liquor of the poor – to be added to the coffee to warm those who were sleeping piled together on the ground and soaked with rain and dew, exposed to the devastation of an attack of fever. That year epidemics had been calamitous on the plantation; they’d had to replace many slaves, and none of the newborn had survived. Cambray warned his employer that the liquor and sugar would corrupt the slaves, and later there would be no way to keep them from sucking the cane. There was a special punishment for that infraction, but Valmorain was not given to complicated torture, except for runaways, in which case he followed the Code Noir to the letter. The execution of Maroons in Le Cap seemed to him a waste of time and money; it would have been enough to hang them without all the fuss.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (AUG 13, 2010)

The mulatto slave Zarité, known as Tété, and her owner, the French planter Toulouse Valmorain form the center of Allende’s novel  about slavery and the slave revolt that freed Haiti.

Valmorain came to the island at the age of 20, a rich noble anxious for a quick return to Paris. But the death of his father and the disarray of his sugar plantation make escape impossible, so Valmorain throws himself into making the property a success. His right hand man in this is the brutal overseer Prosper Cambray, feared by all.

Cambray lusts after Tété, Valmorain’s wife’s maid and soon, as the wife descends more deeply into madness, Valmorain’s mistress and primary caretaker of his son. Tété’s own son with Valmorain has been taken from her, she knows not where, and her lover, a young, proud African, runs off to join the rebels.

The first half centers on the brief, degraded lives of slaves on the island and the build-up to the slave revolt. Allende fills in a lot of political and emotional detail: the French Revolution so far away, the failed slave revolts of the past, the fears of the vastly outnumbered whites.

The second half takes Tété and Valmorain to Cuba, then New Orleans, as they flee Toussaint L’Ouverture’s rebellion. Allende’s historical focus is masterful, from the economic and intellectual views on slavery and slaves by landowners, to the remnants of African culture – like voodoo – that the slaves clung to.

The brutality is mindboggling, of course, and Allende goes into it in great detail. It’s detail, actually, which makes this less than her best. So determined is she to get across the despicable history of slavery, she loses the individuals among the archetypes. She depicts Valmorain as a fairly liberal planter, although he rapes Tété at age 11 and considers her incapable of deep emotion. He is simply a man of his times and culture.

Tété is more complex, but still rather flat. The real life of the novel is slavery itself – the enormity of it as a force for evil. Allende successfully shows how slavery corrupted the thinking of whites and debased their values, how it changed the course of history in so many ways, seeped into the very fabric of the culture and how its legacy follows us still.

Allende’s research is formidable and her passion infectious. Anyone interested in the birth of Haiti or the coming-of-age of New Orleans should enjoy Allende’s thorough exploration.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 60 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper; 1 edition (April 27, 2010)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Isabel Allende
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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August 13, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Caribbean, Class - Race - Gender, Facing History, New Orleans

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