First, I’d like to thank fellow Cannonballer Badkittyuno for sending this novel to me as part of the holiday exchange. I had mentioned that, to my shame, I had not read any of Isabel Allende’s novels and Badkittyuno sent one of her personal favorites, Island Beneath the Sea. And now it’s one of mine. This is a work of historical fiction set in late 18th century Haiti and Louisiana. The novel shows the effect of slavery and revolution on a group of people, slave and free, whose lives intersect. It is ultimately a love story, the story of the love between parents and children, between lovers, and between the living and the dead, i.e., those who have gone on to “the island beneath the sea”. I am a complete sucker for historical fiction done right, such as Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels. Allende does it right, providing the perfect combination of historical fact with imaginative yet realistic fictional characters.
The novel begins in 1770 on the island of Sainte-Domingue, better known as Haiti, which was a French slave-owning colony. The main character is a mulatto slave named Zarite or Tete for short. In childhood she was sold to a French plantation owner named Toulouse Valmorain who is about to marry a Spanish woman named Eugenia Solar. Eugenia is the sister of Valmorain’s business partner Sancho Garcia del Solar, a charming rake who knows how to make connections advantageous to himself and Valmorain. Before marrying and bringing Eugenia from Cuba to Sainte-Domingue, Valmorain employs the services of Violette Boisier, a much desired “cocotte” or courtesan, to furnish his plantation in a manner suitable for his station and to find a personal slave for Eugenia. Violette, who is also mulatto, is a free and savvy business woman. She and her slave Loula successfully manage their own affairs, so to speak, and do a decent trade in beauty products on the side. Violette is choosy about her men, and has a soft spot for Valmorain and for the French military man Capitaine Etienne Relais. The relationships among these characters are the heart of the novel. Tete falls in love with a fellow slave named Gambo who runs off to join the rebellion, but she has children by Valmorain, who starts raping her as soon as she reaches puberty. Valmorain’s treatment of Tete’s children seems generous by white plantation owner standards, but it devastates Tete. Meanwhile, after Eugenia gives birth to Valmorain’s son Maurice and descends into madness, it falls on Tete to take care of him. When the plantations surrounding Valmorian’s are burned by rebels, Tete is the one to take action to save Valmorain and the children. Valmorain promises to free Tete but then takes her and tries to start over, purchasing a plantation in Louisiana with his brother-in-law.
All of our major characters find themselves there after the Haitian Revolution, which is not such a far-fetched plot device, as thousands of whites fleeing revolution did in fact go to Louisiana. At the time Louisiana was still owned by France but was about to be sold to the US. It was a slave territory, so wealthy plantation owners such as Valmorain would have been quite comfortable there. Valmorain does note, however, that the attitude toward slaves is quite different in Louisiana compared to Sainte Domingue.
…the price of slaves was high. That meant a larger investment than he had calculated, and he had to be prudent about expenses, but he also felt secretly relieved. Now there was a practical reason for taking care of one’s own slaves, not merely humanitarian scruples that could be interpreted as weakness.
Valmorain remarries in Louisiana, and his new wife Hortense makes life difficult for Tete and for Maurice. Meanwhile, Tete is trying to keep her unfree daughter Rosette safe and ensure their future freedom. Violette and Loula concentrate on their beauty industry, and Violette brainstorms a new business venture based on placage or “lefthand marriage,” i.e., negotiating relationships between rich young white men and free mulatto girls to the mutual advantage of each. The situation between Valmorain, Tete, Violette, Hortense, Maurice and Rosette grows more tense and comes to a boil. The question of personal freedom and whom one may love will be resolved in the fallout, and it is not a happy ending for all.
Allende’s attention to and use of historical fact to frame her story is outstanding. She does a fine job of setting out all of the class and race differences that come into play in Haiti, differences that help explain the failure of French rule and success of the slave revolution later. The socio-political situation in Haiti was complicated and the geopolitical situation compounded the problems there. On Haiti, there were 4 classes of people based on both race and color. The grands blancs were white plantation owners such as Valmorain whose concerns were largely economic. They had a vested interest in maintaining slavery and weren’t too concerned about the political situation in France (revolution and the rise of Napoleon) so long as they could enrich themselves and get military protection when needed. The petite blancs were whites who lacked the wealth and social status of plantation owners; they wanted to guard their privilege at the expense of free people of color, i.e., the affranchis. At the bottom were the slaves, for whom life in Sainte Domingue was especially horrific. The prevailing philosophy was that slaves were an inexhaustible resource, and so the treatment of slaves was particularly abhorrent. This attitude and the ensuing atrocities committed against slaves contributed to the Haitian revolution, the first time in history that slaves rose up successfully against their oppressors and created their own slave-free state.
When Allende shifts to Louisiana, the reader experiences along with the characters the change in attitude toward slaves and among classes living together in New Orleans. As mentioned above, in Louisiana slaves were viewed as property worth caring for, and while this did not prevent abuse and beating, it did mean that owners were less cavalier about the death of a slave than Haitian plantation owners had been. And while there were strict class boundaries in Louisiana, there was also slightly more tolerance among lower classes for mixing. For example, Dr. Parmentier (one of my favorite characters) has to hide his black wife and family on Haiti but does not have to do that in New Orleans, and Pere Antoine (another favorite) ministers to black and white, free and enslaved, and is not afraid to confront a wealthy man who has committed a wrong toward a slave. These “improvements” in New Orleans are rather subtle, and the message that we get is that while individuals may do things here and there to help individuals who suffer, what is required is a change in the entire system, something that is very attractive to Maurice and appalling to Valmorain.
Island Beneath the Sea is a marvelous novel and would be a great choice for a book group or for a history class covering slavery, emancipation and revolution. This is one that stays with you long after you finish reading it.