By Carolyn Williams
South American author Isabel Allende’s eighth novel “Island Beneath the Sea” is a historical romance set in 18th century Haiti, characterized by the sweeping scale and attention to detail which have come to be Allende’s hallmarks.
In 1770, young Frenchman Toulouse Valmorain reluctantly arrives in Haiti, determined to return immediately to the civilized France to which, he is adamant, he rightfully belongs. Unfortunately, his syphilis-stricken father has left the family plantation in ruin, and if there is to be any hope of maintaining the financial status to which the Valmorains have become accustomed, Toulouse will have to settle in Saint-Domingue for some time, to his considerable displeasure.
As years pass, Valmorain turns the plantation into a success but realizes that for him, the return to Paris must wait, and he decides to marry. Enamored of a young Spanish woman, Eugenia, Valmorain marries. In preparation for his new wife, he purchases a child slave, a mulatto named Zarité–Tété for short–who becomes the novel’s protagonist.
Eugenia and Toulouse are hardly a picture of marital bliss, as she slowly devolves into insanity. Tété is the unparalleled favorite slave of both master and mistress, she for comfort in her muddled state, and he for domestic help and a warm body at night.
As the French Revolution takes Paris by storm, and Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave rebellion follows closely upon its heels, Valmorain moves himself and Tété to the bustling, exciting city of New Orleans. Despite their unique relationship and unusual degree of codependency, Tété longs for her freedom.
As is Allende’s wont, “Island Beneath the Sea” is dramatic, richly textured and deeply felt. Unfortunately, it does not touch the spectacular “House of the Spirits” or even “Daughter of Fortune.” Given her prior writings, we have come to expect a certain lightness woven into the more serious fabric of her story, a multigenerational tale, perhaps, which might accept in that uniquely South American way. We expect a certain degree of magic, receiving these surprising turns with good humor. But “Island Beneath the Sea” spends too much time in the lavish details of its historical setting, leaving its characters flat and rather unlike the captivating creatures we expect of Allende. Most disappointing is our heroine, Tété, who fails to excite or intrigue, despite her historically rich context and the number of atrocities she witnesses related to slavery.
At the end of the day, “Island Beneath the Sea” is not a bad book by any means. It simply fails to meet Allende’s own usually excellent standards. For an author with such a large English translation readership of her original Spanish, some disappointment is inevitable.