Monday, October 15, 2012

"Island Beneath the Sea:" Sex, Slavery, History and Heartache

Better-read folks than I say that Isabel Allende's novel Island Beneath the Sea is not her finest work, nor is it the best novel about Haiti. But this is my first encounter with the Chilean-American writer and the first book I have ever read about that former French colony. And I am enjoying this novel about the New World of colonists and slaves and the mingling of many cultures.

I bought the audio version of this 2010 novel to keep me company on weekday mornings, when I head from home before dawn to my teaching job. This is an epic, historical tale that switches back and forth from a third-person omniscient narrator to the first-person point of view of Zarite, the mulatta child of an African mother raped by white sailors on her forced passage to the New World.

The themes of this novel, set largely in late-18th century Haiti, are familiar to anyone who has delved into the powerful beauty that is African-American feminist literature: the violence of slavery, the longing for freedom, the ways we build our sense of self despite difficult circumstances, the blending of culture and the complexities of cultural identity.

Island Beneath the Sea,startled me with its vivid descriptions of sex. At times, I felt as if I were listening a romance novel. I was almost embarrassed by the frank and cliched descriptions of lovemaking and later unsurprised to discover in a Wall Street Journal piece that Allende had for a time translated English-language romance novels into Spanish. (She was fired for changing the dialogue and endings to make the female protagonists seem smarter).

At other times, Allende's narrative is bogged down in far too much detail, as if she wants credit for her research into the role religion - Roman Catholicism and Voodoo in particular - played in the history of Haiti.

But what keeps me listening are the tender descriptions of love across man-made boundaries: the slave who raises a white child as her own; the white father who cares for his adopted mulatto child and so on. I also am intrigued by the blending of cultures and languages, the French and Creole, the English and Spanish.

Once I finish, I am giving this audiobook to my mom, a multilingual woman whose roots and interests range across several continents. I know she too will appreciate this sweeping historic epic.

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