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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, June 13th, 2010
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Island Beneath the Sea

by Isabel Allende

THe House of the Slaves

A review by Helena Maria Viramontes

Since the 1985 publication of her fiercely imagined first novel, The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's ability to invent a wide variety of characters, tie them to a historical narrative as factual as a college text and set them in grandiose geographical settings without breaking a sweat -- at least not on the page -- has made her one of the most popular novelists of our time. Her epics always involve women of extraordinary resiliency, and this 10th novel is no exception. It is multigenerational, beginning in 1770 and following Toulouse Valmorain and his slave Tete from a place "the original inhabitants, the Arawaks, had called Haiti before the conquistadors changed the name to La Espanola," to Cuba, then to New Orleans, where Tete is finally set free to raise her grandchild.

Twenty-year-old Valmorain arrives on the French colony hoping to put his father's plantation in order as the older man lay dying of syphilis. After his death, Valmorain inherits the sugar cane farm and its many slaves on an island where more "than sixty classifications are set by percentage of white blood." Valmorain's mistress, the wise and beautiful "mulatta," Violette, advises him to buy a black child named Zarite, or Tete, to watch over his mentally ill Spanish wife. Tete is 11 when Valmorain rapes her, and the repeated sexual violence results in her bearing two children. "Valmorain never wondered what she felt in those encounters," Allende writes, "just as it would never have occurred to him to ask what his horse felt when he rode it."

Through Tete's intermittent firstperson narrations, the reader comes to appreciate her quiet pragmatism, unwavering spirit and profound compassion. Rather than escape with her lover Gambo at the start of the Haitian uprising, she opts to save the children and Valmorain. Indispensable, Tete cares for Valmorain's legitimate son and anguishes over her own, ruthlessly given away. She is allowed to keep her daughter only after convincing Valmorain that the girl would be a good playmate for his white child.

Though Valmorain and Tete are the protagonists, there are dozens of minor characters that double-stitch the storylines into compelling love stories, political intrigues and descriptions of entrepreneurial ventures dependent on slave labor. Allende navigates the historical epochs by detailing clothes, food, buildings, botanical medicines and the social practices of various classes. But the novel's most powerful impact is in its unrelenting depiction of slavery. Because it's more profitable to replace slaves rather than treat them with anything resembling benevolence, they were starved, burned alive and beaten mercilessly. Over half a million labored from dawn to dusk in Haiti. Ultimately, Valmorain flees to New Orleans with Tete and the children, where slaves are treated slightly better, but only slightly -- the servitude was so atrocious that many committed suicide, lost their lives attempting escape or killed their newborns so the babies would go "happily to the island beneath the sea without ever experiencing slavery."

Helena Maria Viramontes' most recent novel is Their Dogs Came with Them.

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