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Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
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A-Island Beneath the Sea.epsIsabel Allende is the internationally best-selling author of The Stories of Eva Luna (1991), Portrait in Sepia (2001), Zorro ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005), Inés of My Soul ( 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007), and the memoir The Sum of Our Days ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008), among other works. Her best-selling first novel, The House of the Spirits, was adapted into a feature film starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.

The Story: Eighteenth-century Haiti (then Saint Dominigue) is the setting for Allende's latest novel, which chronicles the life of the young slave Zarité Sedella. At age nine, Zarité, or Tété, is sold into the household of Toulouse Valmorain, a Frenchman who arrives on the island to oversee his family's plantation. Shortly after, Tété attracts the attention of her master, who forces her into countless degradations and ultimately fathers her daughter Rosette. Against the tumultuous, bloody backdrop of a slave rebellion, Island Beneath the Sea follows one woman's fight for freedom and dignity in the face of oppression.
Harper. 464 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9780061988240

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Zarité's short first-person narratives, inserted in the larger, third-person work, give a sense of both the woman and her larger world. ... But the lines between good and evil are not nuanced. It's a small fault in the canvas of the larger story." Robin Vidimos

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"Like her previous eight novels, Island Beneath the Sea is rich in drama, setting, themes, characters, dialogue and symbolism. ... [A]n intriguing and wonderfully woven story." David Hendricks

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While the colorful period details Allende heaps on sometimes feel more perfunctory and less lived-through than those in her Chile-set novels, she's largely successful in removing the gunk clogging the veins of history and pumping in fresh blood." Keith Staskiewicz

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[W]hile many white characters' racism and hypocrisy are laid bare, those who support black rights do so with a moral clarity that feels anachronistic. ... [T]his is slavery mixed with fairy tale, a world as enchanted--and enchanting--as it is brutal and unjust." Carolina De Robertis

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Allende bogs down in all the domestic details. ... You want to scream when the styling of a coiffeur or preparation of a breakfast tray consumes a page." Betsy Willeford

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"[F]or all its entertaining sweep, the story lacks complex characterization and originality. ... There is plenty of melodrama and coincidence in Island Beneath the Sea, but not much magic." Gaiutra Bahadur

Critical Summary

Readers and critics often revere the Chilean-born Allende for her grand, sweeping, magical realism novels, but many reviewers expressed some disappointment with this latest offering. The Miami Herald critic noted: "The prose is too often the mating of a celeb magazine and a master's thesis," and several agreed the book felt overwritten. Others were unimpressed by the characters' lack of complexity and believability. On a positive note, many critics enjoyed the storytelling, with women at the forefront, and others praised the novel's respectful portrayal of voodoo practices. For those hoping to learn more about Haiti's slave rebellion, however, it might be best to seek out Madison Smartt Bell's acclaimed fictional trilogy: All Soul's Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone that the Builder Refused ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2005).

Supplemental Reading

A-AllSoulsRising.epsAll Soul's Rising | Madison Smartt Bell (1995): Award Star National Book Award Finalist. In this epic historical novel, Bell looks at the slave rebellion during the late 18th century that ended French colonial rule of the island of Haiti.