I listened to the novel as an audiobook, and while it started out promising I have to admit that as it went on and on and on, I became more and more weary with the whole ordeal. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish it by the end, but I had put so much time in that I had to see how things came together, and what exactly the point of it all would be in the end. And it certainly did come together and have some points to make, but I can’t say that what was presented felt worth it, or that I was inclined to buy it.
The House of the Spirits spans across multiple generations of the Trueba family in post-colonial Chile (though the country is not specifically named) The main characters are the family patriarch, Esteban, whose family owns a run-down estate and farmland that he wants to return to its former glory, along with his own political ambitions, Clara, Esteban’s wife who is more spiritual in nature and has certain magical abilities of clairvoyance, their daughter, Blanca, who falls in love and alliance with a man opposing her father, and Blanca’s daughter, Alba, who Esteban loves and cherishes despite her own relationships with his political opponents. There is a LOT going on in this novel, that it is almost difficult to even try to explain, but across the generations this family history eventually leads to the political upheaval of the country and how the family is involved in different manners which changes their relationships and lives in unexpected ways.
[Mild spoilers may appear in the rest of the review!]
One of the big selling points of this novel that I kept reading about was the magical realism involved. And to be sure, there are moments of this with certain ladies in the family and their abilities with clairvoyance and communicating with spirits, which gives some spice and intrigue to the family and their relationships. But ultimately I can’t help but wonder, to what end? What was the significance of these abilities? Or perhaps the point is just to show that magic can happen for people anywhere, and is just a simple part of everyday life for some, no stranger than another family’s rituals and traditions in the home.
A big problem that I had with this novel is the centering around such an unlikable protagonist, Esteban. He is a power-hungry, angry, vengeful man, and a serial rapist of those people under his employment, and we are supposed to get behind him because now in his old age looking back, he has some regrets? Because at the very last moment he sacrifices his dignity (barely, in my opinion) to help his granddaughter? I don’t buy it.
Also in a story that is so tied together by people’s relationships with one another, we really never see what draws him to the women in his life, or what draws them to him either (save for his granddaughter, Alba, when she is a young child). We are told time and time again that the love between Esteban and his wife, Clara, is so strong, yet we never really see this, we just see the terrible moments that make you wonder why these people are even around each other at all. And the whole story kicks off with him being drawn to his wife’s older sister because of her beauty, and falling apart when she dies, but why? They barely know each other and we are supposed to understand a deep love that is made of nothing other than the fact that he thinks she is beautiful and she is meek and mild and just kind of goes along with it. Yeah yeah sure, I get love at first sight, but again, here I simply don’t feel like that’s what’s at play, and yet I’m supposed to accept it.
In general I had a bit of trouble with the women in this story, who seem to simply be flitting around the story of Esteban. It was so hard to get a read on so many of them, like they were boiled down to their specific eccentricities, and, and so often in relation to the men in their lives, or for the sole purpose of showing a contrast to the men, but never as individuals on their own. They make decisions and have actions of their own but we never get insight into them, it is all just treated as a part of their quirks and nature. Was I not paying enough attention? Was I supposed to get more out of them than I did? That could be the case, because I just didn’t get any of these characters. Really, I felt like the only woman who I understood was the granddaughter, Alba, who goes on a significant journey within the last chapter of the novel. Really, this final section could have been a story all on it’s own in regards to her involvement in the revolution in Chile.
But then, what comes together in the end really does need the actions of the earlier parts of the novel to make the final points. Again though, I have a hard time swallowing it. Everything eventually leads to a moment of writing the history of the family and the people in it, but what exactly is being written? It doesn’t really feel like it works, or that the connection of Clara writing down her family’s history really connects to Alba in any way. The most direct connection is the other final point of the novel, which I read as being about the sins of the father. That is, because Esteban raped a young girl in the past, her grandson son eventually goes to do the same to Alba. The novel clearly states that this action is the completion of a cycle that was put into motion because of what Esteban did to the man’s grandmother. And I don’t like that. Alba has to pay a cost for something that has nothing to do with her, and we are supposed to see this as a cycle coming to a close? A resolution? That there is some kind of symmetry to be awed by in this? Maybe I once again missed the point, but it felt like there was a lot of poeticizing going on that I absolutely did not appreciate.
So where does that leave me? Well, I will say that I do appreciate the undertaking of this dense novel, and could see little glimmers of beauty and insight here and there. Unfortunately, however, this does not make up for how incredibly frustrating and draining The House of the Spirits was for me to listen to.