The House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende

Book cover

Perhaps predictably, I chose this to be my main reading on vacation to Chile (I saw at least one other American tourist reading it). But, cliche or not, I’m glad I took the opportunity to read it.

The book is a somewhat fanciful family chronicle taking place in an unnamed country, clearly representing Chile over the first three-quarters or so of the 20th century. Allende participates in the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism to a mild degree, which I found to be a good amount–there are a couple of magical things (primarily the clairvoyant/spiritual powers of Clara), but they are not the main focus of the book. The characters are richly drawn, and Allende makes the interesting choice to have a very bad person as one of the standpoint characters (Esteban, the representative of aristocracy and conservatism).

I felt the book transformed significantly in the last hundred pages or so (about the last fifth of the book), when it reached the events of the election of Salvador Allende (the author’s cousin once removed, referred to in the novel only as The Candidate) and the subsequent coup of Pinochet. I found this section to be super gripping, and I was surprised at how unsparing Allende was of the grim details of the coup and the police state. But while this was my favorite part of the book, I think the earlier portions of the book were important in establishing the characters and getting the reader to care about what came of them later.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars