You know how I said that I will publish only book recommendations on this blog, reserving book reviews for my other blog? Apparently, having a blog reserved for books isn't enough to fully express my love for literature. Not even close. I suppose it was just a matter of time before another book ended up here...and why not? It is only natural to want to talk about the things we love. I do love literature. Isabel Allende stole my heart long ago. Her hauntigly beautiful novels are always a brave voyage into the female soul as well as high achivements in the genre of magic realism. Today I'm going to write about Of Love And Shadows.
What can I say about this novel that hasn't already been said? Of Love and Shadows deserves all the praise it gets, in that I'm certain. I had high expectations of this novel, for I consider Allende to be a remarkably talented writer. I seem to be have been justified in my judgement. I’m happy to say that this novel lived up to both my expectations and its reputation. Among the people I know, this book has quite a high standing. Indeed, whenever I would so much as mention magic realism or South American writers, somebody would recommend this novel to me. I didn’t actively search for this novel because I have a habit of letting books come to me. During the course of my life, books always seem to come to on their own at the right time and place. Obviously, my habits of weekly visits to libraries and buying books didn’t hurt, but what I really mean is that I don’t like to hurry the process. When I picked up a certain novel, I like to feel that I’m ready for it.
What kind of novel is it? It is a novel about great many things and that is what makes it so brilliant. As the novel suggests, this is a book about love. Not just romantic love, not at all. It is about love in all shapes and formes, love in its complexity, love as a force of virtue, love between family members, parents and children, friends and strangers. Even people who are strangers to each other, during the course of this novel prove their capability for love by acts of great personal courage. That kind of personal initiative is very touching to read about. Who doesn't love reading about people reaching out? This novel shows love against the odds. Human beings coming together to help one another, often at great peril for themselves and their families. As cheesy as it might sound, this novel made me believe that there is hope for human kind. That somehow we can fight the injustice together, day by day. That true love exists and that families can overcome difficulties together.
Hope and love amongst the shadows, perhaps that is the best description one can give of this book. I would describe it as a complete opposite of chic lit. Not just because it belongs to the genre of magic realism, not only because it is beautifully written but first and foremost because it deals with very serious issues and in does it in a profound way. This is the kind of book that can make us gather the courage to confront our personal demons and shadows. Simple and trivial romantic stories don’t like to talk about shadows, they prefer heroines that work for fashion magazines and handsome men to court them. Their setting in such novels is usually some jet set place, filled with celebrity names worthy of a mention and brands worthy of a personal bankrupt. Their stories are always linear and predictable. Not this one. This novel is not just about the love story between Irene and Francesco and even if it was it would still be worthy of a read because it feels authenic. Of Love and Shadows is set in a country that is never named, but we can assume it was based on Chile, the country of the author’s origin. This is love in time of death, in time of massacres that remain hidden, it time of paralyzing fear that is touchable but unnameable for its very naming invokes danger. This is a story of love in dangerous and desperate times.
Perhaps to parody all those horrible chic lit novels, our writer has come up with a heroine (Irene) that works as a journalist, but her romantic story is never the first page news in this novel. Indeed, Irene's feelings are just a part of this novel, as convincing as deep as they might be. As touching as her love story is, as tender as delicate as it infolds, the writer doesn’t let us rest on it. Irene is a young woman engaged to a handsome military officer. She grows up in an upper class family, protected from poverty but not from personal tragedies. Having to witness her mother’s and father’s arguments made her somewhat withdrawn and dreamy as she despite being very perceptive seems to live in a world of her own. As the novel unfolds, Irene learns more about the sufferings of majority of people in her land, revealing traces of violence and injustice. Many families have valid reasons for crying rivers of tears and our Irene together with her photographer (soon to be love interest- and this is not the spoiler as the two of them kiss in the preface of the book ) Francesco follows these rivers that seem to lead to a lake of grief. The tragedies reveal themselves one after another, often in a very shocking manner. Irene's character development is very believable. It is not that she starts of as a superficial girl, but her sensitivity that has lead her toward wanting to know more, is often not enough and she is forced to develop a new level of personal courage and determination. Furthermore, she is not portrayed as all mighty, she often has to and does rely on help of others, for example Francesco, who is by personal experience more used to this russian rulette, this subtle but dangerious game of chance, that is fighting the regime you live in. The members of Francesco’s family are a very important (and well written!) part of this novel that often travels back in time to give us more insight into the soul of its residents. The history of this family really touched my heart. Trust to Isabel to create amazing family portraits and you won't be disappointed. She connectes family stories wonderfully.
Just as our protagonists as in a state of constant rush, struggle and fight against all odds, so are we as readers constantly introduced to new characters and stories, thus often exposed to new horrors and bloodshed. Allende manages to create a magnificent tapestry of numerous tragic human destinies, all of them connected with invisible ties, those magical connections of soul and heart that are so ethereal they are almost impossible to describe. Yet, she does this with great ease. Allende tells the sad life stories of so many characters, connecting them all to show us the true horror of living in country ruled by a military dictator. The helplessness of a regular person caught up in the networks of power and greed is portrayed repeatedly from different angles, the injustice is stressed over and over again, until we feel like we can’t take it anymore, but we keep on reading, mesmerized by masterful revealing of all those nightmares that life often hides and as painful as the sight of them is, we are somewhat comforted by the love that filled the pages of this novel. Convincing descriptions of personal courage ease the burden of injustice and make the confrontation with the nightmares bearable.
Let us not forget that this is also a novel about shadows. Sinister shadows. For there are dangerous shadows everywhere. Things we don’t like to think about. Events that we choose to ignore. Facts that we try to suppress. As a society and as individuals we’re often both the creators and victims of shadows. We all carry within ourselves shadows of guilt and fear. We cast our shadows onto others and they in turn cast their shadows on us. Misery loves company and more often that we would care to admit, we make other unhappy with our unhappiness, we make others afraid with our fear. Fear is contagious. A shadow of evil is always there, lurking from both inside or outside. Seldom do we manage to completely get rid of it. Yet, love exists. It really does. If you managed to create a real honest relationship in your life, if you were kind to somebody, then it is something that nobody can take away from you. They can take you your loved ones but not they can’t take away the love you shared.
True love is like a ray of light that can lead us safely or those dangerous paths covered and stalked by shadows. Not let you think all of this mentioning of love makes this novel overly emotional. On the contrary, I would say it is a very realistic representation of what life in a controlled state is like. I would even go so far as to compare it with 1984 when it comes to the depths of the psychological study of the oppressed and the oppressor. The seriousness of its appeal against government control is reinforced by those aspects of the novel that are most brutal but also most honest in portraying the effects of violence. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that what happens in this novel is not a thing of a past. In this very moment, there are many games of power that are as dangerous as the ones the general plays in this novel and that will inevitably have conveniences that are as devastating as those described here. How much does our own government control us? This novel makes you use your head by raising interesting questions, it really does.
Reading this novel felt like a blessing, as odd as that may seem and as hard as it was at time, because of the painful descriptions of tragic human destinies and hopeless struggles against a military regime. There are many graphic scenes in this novel, so be prepared for that. If you can’t take reading about murders, torture, rape and dead bodies, this is not the novel for you. I don’t want to make it sound like it is a horror novel, for it is not but parts of it are quite graphic. They are, however, always there for a reason. I'm not sure that it would be possible to tell a story about life under military regime without mentioning torture, murder and disposal of dead bodies beacuse those things are a part of such a society. In addition. Allende digs deeps when she creates her characters and for some this might be uncomfortable. There is a parallel love story in this novel that resembles the one in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. There are two fifthteen years old girls named Evangelina in this novel and both of them are given attention, even if only one of the drives the plot forward. Basically, two infants (girls) got mixed up at the delivers and because the authority isn't willing to recognize their mistake, their families raise them but let them know who their real parents are. They even give them identital names (Evangelina) in hope that one day the girls can return to their real families. So it happens there are feelings between one of the brothers and his 'almost' sister. Allende is much more explicit in these descriptions of erotical desires (that are never acted on) than Bronte was, so that is another element that might bother some people, even if brother and sister in question aren't real siblings and are aware of that.
I loved Of Love and Shadows as much as I loved The House of Sprits and Daughter of Fortune. If you have read and loved this novel, I would recommend reading these two novels I just mentioned. There are similarities between those two novel and this one, but there is no repetition. The characters and the story is Love and Shadows seem very unique to me. The similarities of themes didn’t cause any déjà vu experiences because Allende’s powerful imagination and writing skills are more that capable of creating a myriad of distinct characters and stories. On the other hand, if you haven’t read anything by Allende this is a good novel to start with. It is also not as long as her other novels, so if you have a preference for a lesser number of pages, or you can’t spare the time for a longer novel, consider giving this one a try. My edition numbers 290 pages. It also came with a beautifully illustrated cover that you can see on these photographs. You see, I loved this novel so much I decided to take it with me when I went away on a little weekend getaway. I just couldn't stop reading it, I loved every minute of reading it. Have you read anything by Allende?