Isabel Allende’s debut novel from 1982 is a sweeping historical drama set in Chile, though that country is never named. This is the story of multiple generations of one family as they deal with political upheaval and unrest, culminating in a right wing military dictatorship known for its human rights atrocities. Told from the points of view of the Trueba family patriarch Esteban and his granddaughter Alba, The House of the Spirits takes the reader from poverty stricken city streets, to mines and rural areas, to the heights of wealth and power in the unnamed capital city; from the turn of the 20th century to the 1970s. Esteban Trueba’s rise parallels the rise of right wing political forces. Both Esteban and the right wing rely on violence and repression to attain their goals. Yet, neither can completely extinguish what we might call the spirit of the people, a spirit expressed through the women in Esteban’s life.
Esteban Trueba is a self-made man who rules his family and his properties with an iron fist and fiery temper. Born to a noble but impoverished family, he determined early on in life that he would get back that which rightfully belonged to him. His only soft spot is reserved for the great loves of his life: his first fiancée Rosa; Rosa’s sister Clara, who became his wife; and his granddaughter Alba. These women of the Del Valle family are known for their beauty, their creativity and spirituality. Clara is clairvoyant, and thus she can commune with spirits that inhabit her home as well as foretell some future events. Her family is politically connected and liberal, and given this background and her own peculiar nature, it seems strange that she would end up married to Esteban Trueba or that the marriage could ever be happy. Clara seems to be Esteban’s polar opposite. While he threatens the peasants on his estate, treats them as stupid children and rapes many of the women, Clara is generous and selfless, earning the love of many. Esteban worries about communists and helps rig elections, while Clara, despite seeing disasters in the future, maintains calm and serenity through her communion with the spirits. Those who inhabit the Trueba family’s sphere fear Esteban but adore Clara, including Esteban’s own sister Ferula.
As a modern man, Esteban seeks out that which will advertise his power and authority to others. Thus when he and Clara have children, their twin sons will be sent to English boarding school while daughter Blanca remains close to her mother. Esteban shows little interest in his children and becomes downright hateful toward Blanca when she falls in love with a poor boy from their estate. Sons Jaime and Nicolas end up disappointing him as well, as neither seems destined to follow in Esteban’s footsteps. Nicolas is drawn toward philosophy and the exotic; he desperately wishes he had his mother’s powers of clairvoyance and devises various schemes to attract notice and followers. Jaime is drawn to medicine and, like his mother, toward helping the poor. Jaime, who seems dull and boring, actually becomes connected to leaders of the revolutionary movement. This will strengthen his relationship with his niece Alba. Alba is Blanca’s daughter, and as much as Esteban despises Blanca, he adores Alba.
The Trueba family, like the country they inhabit, is divided. Clara, Blanca, Jaime and Alba are drawn toward the poor and oppressed. They befriend them, help them, and even fall in love with them. Yet Esteban sees these people as his enemies; he fears their power and works for his entire life to keep them down, and he is proud of this. His violent rages against communists and members of his own family will be destructive for his family and his country, something he only sees when it is too late.
The storytelling here is utterly enthralling and reminded me of Tolstoy — another great creator of historical drama that feels a little like a soap opera sometimes (that’s a compliment). As much as I detest Esteban, I think Allende does a wonderful job of showing how such a terrible man can still be loved by those close to him. I also love the way Allende’s female characters demonstrate such resolve and strength. Despite having no official power, they are the force that fights against hatefulness, that perseveres through the horror, and remembers the past as they move forward. The descriptions of the atrocities committed by the military regime are hard to read, and knowing in advance that certain characters are going to be caught up in it just makes the anticipation worse. If you pick up this book, brace yourself for chapter 13, “The Terror.” I find that this is a timely novel though. Many times as I was reading I was struck by how similar our world today is to the world Allende describes: suppression of voting rights, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the tendency toward oligarchy and fascism. I hope that we don’t lose touch with the spirits of liberty, freedom, justice and decency.