27. The Island Beneath The Sea

by Isabel Allende

For someone who is constantly asserting that she will no longer read books about slavery in the Americas, I have now read three of them this year.  The first two were Wench and A Mercy.  I made an exception for those books because Wench was just a new, fresh story and A Mercy was written by Toni Morrison ( if she writes it, I’m gonna read it).

Allende, who hails from South America, usually writes historical novels that revolve around Latin America, but its not much of a stretch that she has turned her attention to the Caribbean nation of Haiti.  Island Beneath the Sea chronicles the years leading up to and beyond the Haitian Revolution.   Toulouse Valmorain, a refined Frenchman,  comes to Saint Domingue to visit his father who owns a sugar plantation there.  Valmorain considers himself a cultured man, and while he doesn’t object to wealth that it creates, has no desire to be involved with the operation and the institution of slavery that fuels it.  But life has a different plan for him: his father dies and Valmorain is left in charge of a business he doesn’t want.

The real protagonist of this story is Zarite, or Tete, a slave who is brought to the plantation as a child to care for Valmorian’s wife.  The book is interspersed with Tete’s own first-person accounts of her life with the Valmorain’s and the uncertainty of the future of the island. 

This rich story is made even better by setting the stories of these two people against the backdrop of the beginning of the Haitian Revolution (Toussaint L’Ouverture makes an appearance), the practice of Voodoo by the slave population, and the lives of free people of color in Haiti & New Orleans.

Although I agree with Marlon James’ (The Book of Night Women) review, where he says that Allende at times seems to just want to prove how much research she has done on Voodoo and Haitian history.  There is one character that at times appears to exist only to make the reader more comfortable with the practice of Voodoo.  Aside from that, I loved this book and I will be recommending it at work all summer long.

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