It was with little hope that I applied to NetGalley to read a pre-release copy of Isabel Allende’s latest book “A Long Petal of the Sea”.
As a huge fan of her work, I coveted the book but I doubted my chances. Ideally, NetGalley want 80% of books delivered to be reviewed —let’s say my stats are nowhere near this figure. In the early days as a member, I happily clicked on new books, then failed to find the time to either read or review.
Against all expectations, I was accepted to review “A Long Petal of the Sea”. I was overjoyed and that same evening started the book. Wow! I had no idea the emotional and intellectual journey ahead in this most remarkable of books.
Normally, I do not include the blurbs of books, however, considering the wide scope of “A Long Petal of the Sea” it makes sense to first introduce its premise. Surprisingly, there is a very different blurb for the Amazon in America. Here is the UK book description:
“That September 2, 1939, the day of the Spanish exiles’ splendid arrival in Chile, the Second World War broke out in Europe.
Victor Dalmau is a young doctor when he is caught up in the Spanish Civil War, a tragedy that leaves his life – and the fate of his country – forever changed. Together with his sister-in-law, the pianist Roser Bruguera, he is forced out of his beloved Barcelona and into exile.
When opportunity to seek refuge in Chile arises, they take it, boarding a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to the promised ‘long petal of sea and wine and snow’ over the seas. There, they find themselves enmeshed in a rich web of characters who come together in love and tragedy over the course of four generations, destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world.”
Spoiler Alert: In order to write a comprehensive review I have included some elements from the book that could be considered as ‘spoilers’. I feel my review here barely begins to hint at its magnificence and any details will in no way affect any later rewarding read.
“A Long Petal of the Sea” is an incredible literary novel. It is effectively divided into three parts, each one representative of a different country and time era in which Victor and Roser find themselves.
The story starts dramatically in the midst of the Spanish Civil War as Victor finds himself holding the heart of a fallen soldier, which he massages back to life. His vision of working within cardiology is set from this moment.
The first part of the book is captivating, heartbreaking, emotional. It’s epic, yet often tender and personal as the reader is introduced to the various characters, especially, Roser, Victor and his brother Guillem.
At times in this first section the story is interspersed with succinct history ‘lessons’ about the Spanish Civil War which are equally fascinating and horrifying. As Roser and Victor’s mother are forced to join the half million refugees walking to France from Spain I felt deep shock. How had I never heard of this mass exodus – The Retreat. A retreat which killed thousands, both en route and later in appalling conditions in camps in France.
Once in France Victor and Roser are among the lucky two thousand accepted onboard the rescue ship M/S Winnipeg chartered by the famous Chilean Nobel-prize winning poet and politician Pablo Neruda. Throughout the book, Pablo Neruda’s poems are quoted at the beginning of chapters, his words reflecting his belief in humanity, his love for his country.
Once in Chile the writing style is transformed. From the stark description of the terror in Spain, which at times left the main protagonists feeling remote from the reader, the attention moves alongside Victor and Roser as they build a new life in their adopted country.
Here they find warmth, comfort and opportunity. Whilst Victor works in a bar to fund his medical training, Roser continues piano playing, increasingly at a higher level. Their lives become interlinked with a Chilean family whose son Felipe was a young diplomat and welcomed them to Chile on their arrival. Felipe’s sister, Ofelia de Solar immediately catches Victor’s eye.
One of my concerns as I read about the book was that it would skip from one generation to next with just a brief time in each. Rather Isabel Allende has skilfully woven generations of history through the eyes of the two main characters and their friends. This is inspired and as they live through each new trauma or coup, it’s as if we experience it ourselves.
The sweeping story of the book is captivating and I found myself transported across the globe to a country about which I knew nothing. As Victor and Roser both become successful in their chosen careers, as their son Marcel happily grows up as a Chilean, the threat from Pinochet is increasing.
After the coup, Victor blithely and naively feels invulnerable. Until the day he is denounced by a neighbour whom he had helped many times. Once more, nearly forty years after leaving Spain, he finds himself being tortured in cells, taken to a work camp and almost starved to death. It is with Roser’s determination, courage and perseverance to find him over eleven months coupled with the fortuitous near-death of the camp commander that saves Victor’s life.
Once he is freed, the couple flee to Venezuela who is welcoming all refugees from Chile.
Throughout the book, the themes of hope, exile and belonging are thoroughly explored … topics that personally touch the author and reflect her life. As a young Chilean her grandfather fled Spain during the civil war, and years later she too found refuge in Venezuela.
Once again in exile, Roser’s inner and positive spirit helps them to rebuild their lives. The melancholy that often overcomes Victor fails to do so on this occasion and their relationship enters a new level. The epic nature of the book has never felt more intimate and close, the political events of the countries are sweeping, the horrors perpetrated in Chile unimaginable yet there is love and life in their new adopted country.
Victor’s and Roser’s years of exile in Venezuela is brought to an end when a list of those free to return to Chile is published. Victor’s name is on the list and on the advice of their son, they return to a country that has and is still suffering terribly under the regime of Pinochet. Against the odds, they forge a new life, one which flourishes as Pinochet dies and the country slowly reverts to democracy.
As the book headed towards a heartfelt and compelling conclusion I found myself reading slower, not wanting to leave the book, its story, characters.
This is a stunning historical literary novel and one I cannot recommend highly enough. It is a book I will never forget and one I feel that changed me.
I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via Netgalley in exchange for an honest and impartial review.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication date: 21st January 2020
Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction