Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

I hope this is her worst novel, because I’m having trouble getting into it, the same trouble I had with Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America. I’m resorting to the same trick that got me through that one. Read the first hundred pages. Then skip to the last hundred. Go back and read the middle hundred after you get to the end, if you care how it got there. Yes, I rarely read a book that’s over three hundred pages. I can handle three hundred in a month.

Isabel is doing things I tell writers in my group not to do. A basic writer’s mantra is, “Show, don’t tell.” Let the story tell itself through the action and the dialogue of the characters. Mostly, the teller is Ines Suarez, Conquistadora of Chile in the 1500s, but the author switches to omniscient narrator when the story involves events the protagonist did not witness. The narration is wordy and repetitious. By the end of the book, Ines is saying, “I don’t know if I’ve told you this before, but…” I want to scream, “Then why don’t you go back and edit the manuscript.” It makes me wonder if she was paid by the word.

Perhaps Isabel feels constrained by the historical part of a historical novel. After all, history takes place in the past. The story is the conquest of Chile by the Spaniards. The Conquistador is Pedro Valdivia. Ines Saurez is his mistress. It is the classic person on a quest story, but Isabel spends too much time on the Spanish Conquest and too little on the relationship between the characters. When the characters are presented, it is in the past tense recollections of Ines, recounting her adventures as the last survivor of her generation, so the bodies stop short of coming alive.

There is some magic realism in the tale. Ines’ servant, Catalina, is an Indian woman who can foretell the future. Yet even the future glimpsed by Catalina is in the past by the time it reaches our eyes, sort of like the light from the stars, billions and billions of light years away.

It gets better as it goes on. The penultimate chapter is the best. My favorite scene is the one where the Spaniards are being overrun. Ines orders the Indian prisoners beheaded and throws their noggins at the attacking warriors. They land facing their former brothers in arms, a truly grisly multiple cadaver ojo. It turns the tide. The attackers flee before the fury of the witch. There’s nothing like an act of maniacal mayhem to focus the narrative. It tops even the battle where Saint Iago rides out of the clouds to repel the native hordes and save the day for the marauding Spaniards.

What do I like about it? I learn a little Chilean history. I get to meet a fascinating woman. I discover that severing heads may work when negotiation doesn't have a chance.


Amanda said...

I think the police should start that trick, then. ;)

Anonymous said...

The plot sounds a little like the book I just read, only set in Chile instead of Mexico. It was a fascinating time period.

Amanda said...

Actually, Jen, I kinda thought the same thing when I read both of you guys's reviews.