Book Review: ‘The House of the Spirits’ (1982)

The short: 4/5 ✦. A novel of the magical realism genre that deals with very real human issues of a dysfunctional family.

The long:

The House of the Spirits is considered to be a classic. Many students read it in school (though, of course, depending on where you live and/or the type of school you went to, you may have never even heard of it — I know I didn’t), and it’s one of the more contemporary novels in the same vein as Catcher in the Rye1984, and The Handmaiden’s Tale. There’s a lot for teachers to dissect and discuss, and has Latin American cultural significance, to boot.

I’m not sure what makes a classic a “classic.” Something about it that’s meaningful, to be sure, and has withstood the test of time. I was thinking about this after I read a review for The House of the Spirits that was less than positive, noting the utter lack of a coherent plot or good characters. Now, one could rage against this reviewer, saying that they “didn’t get it,” that a Beginning-Middle-End story graph and character personality papers would be useless for this type of book. But what type of book is that? What is it about these classics, your Hemingways and Fitzgeralds and Plaths and Atwoods, that make their actual plots secondary? What is it about them that makes them so widely known and yet so utterly subjective? Some might say it’s a factor of them being adult novels, where the novel structure is less rigid than that of children’s (and of the relatively new genre of young adult), where stream-of-conscious is more accepted and meta-narrative tangents are practically welcomed. Understanding classics’ significance is a matter of studying the time and place in which they were written, knowing the history of the author, and deciphering the myriad symbolism contained therein (how much of these symbols are intentional and just not artistic whims are what I always want to know). But how important is all that stuff, really? Shouldn’t a book stand on the merit of its writing alone, of the story it’s telling and the characters involved? Sometimes that seems true; sometimes it doesn’t.

I don’t have the answers to these questions. A classic is a classic is a classic. You like them or you don’t, but they’re known and appreciated for a reason, and I think it’s worth studying them for that reason alone, but I would also argue that they shouldn’t be placed on pedestals, that they are the end-all, be-all of great literature. Particularly because so many “classics” are European/Western, white, male stories. That’s slowly changing, of course.

That reviewer was technically right about The House of the Spirits: there’s really not much of a plot to speak of, and the characters are pretty unlikeable. I would consider it more of a “slice-of-life” book — if that “life” encompassed four generations of a family (it’s even called a family saga in most descriptions). Oh, and also the whole “magic” thing. It’s not a fantasy book — not by any stretch — but it does place fantastical elements in a harsh, mundane world, where rape is looked upon as matter of course, where violence is an everyday occurrence, where being involved in politics means risking your life and the lives of those around you.

It’s also not a nice book (I did mention the raping). Allende’s narrative voice is omniscient and impersonal, but there was still too much sympathy for Esteban Trueba, a terrible, violent man. The most interesting character for me was Alba. She wasn’t as flighty and ~mysterious~ as Clara, as rebellious-turned-weak-willed as Blanca, but she did things her way and stayed strong in the midst of horrible circumstances. As you can see, women are the heart and soul of this book; they thrive in the midst of sexism and misogyny that wants to only bring them down. Most of the women stay within those roles, having not much of a choice otherwise, but I think the larger point is that they still have thoughts and feelings and desires that go beyond their repression. It’s actually a little hard to believe that the whole story pretty much takes place in the last century, leading up to the real-world events of Chile in the 1970s. Sure, cars and radio and even television gets mentioned, but it’s very sparse, and those almost seem like the mystical elements, not clairvoyant dreams or green mermaid hair.

One problem of reading “classics” outside of school is the perpetual feeling that you’re missing something, that you “don’t get it.” Did I particularly like this book as a reader? No. I do acknowledge how extremely well written it is, and I can see why it’s considered to be a classic and an important novel of Latin American literature. But it’s a tough read, both because of the lengthy prose and the subject matter (raping just being one factor). I’m also not familiar with Chilean history or politics, so a large part of the latter half of the book went over my head. So, I know there’s more to The House of the Spirits that I’m sure I’m not fully getting, but I can skim the surface well enough to come away from this reading experience still feeling more enriched. As a classic and otherwise, it’s worth the read.

Header image: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, published April 19th 2005 by Everyman’s Library

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