The House of the Spirits traces the saga of a Chilean family through the course of three generations. We follow one of the central characters, Clara, from her childhood to her death, along with her various family members and friends along the way. The novel focuses heavily on the theme of filial-duty and does an outstanding job of transitioning through the years, discussing the socio-political upheaval in Chile as well as in the rest of the world. The characters are full of spirit, deeply layered and complex. Each character deserves a novel in their own right to fully tell their own story.
Despite all the positives about this book, I felt is lagging in a number of the ways. I wasn’t engrossed by Allende’s writing style. It is passive, and at times unbearably descriptive. She has a habit of telling you what’s going to happen to a characters years in advance, so that there is no real suspense in the plot. There is a mention of magical realism at the start of the novel: Rosa’s green hair, Clara’s telepathic powers, her Uncle Marco’s mysteries chest of books. However, the magical realism ends there. While Allende constantly discusses Clara’s clairvoyant nature and tendencies, these elements were lackluster and didn’t really aid the plot.
Allende jumped around from character to character, betraying any sense of consistency in the book, although it did follow a typically chronological path. I think the book had too much going on as well. Too many characters that were not discussed enough. It also didn’t help that the story, told mainly in the third person, was occasionally told from the perspective of Esteban Trueba.
Trueba was engaged to Rosa, but he married Clara. Along the way, he raped numerous peasant girls that worked on his land, as well as beating the others into submission. He is a terrible, terrible person, and why Allende chose to take us into his mind, I’m still wondering. It is to sympathize with him? To understand where that type of cruelty comes from? This book, if nothing else, is an excellent study of the most base and horrific aspects of human nature. All the characters are flawed, very few are likeable. Romances soured, relationships faded, loyalties fell apart, mental and physical violence and dominance was also a major element of this book.
The end took a drastic turn towards the macabre, something I wasn’t fully expecting, based on the timid first 300 pages of the novel. Then again, Allende was so wordy that I ended up not really paying attention to what I was reading towards the end. Her passive tone did not convey any sense of the urgency that the plot eventually veered towards.
I would probably recommend this book for anyone looking for a family saga type of novel in the vein of East of Eden and Wild Steps of Heaven. I would recommend this book for fans of Latin-American authors who write provocative pieces that encourage the reader to read outside of their comfort zone and learn about the difficult times and difficult lives of those around the world, In the Time of Butterflies comes to mind. I would not recommend this to fans of magical realism, as that element is missing from this title. I would not recommend this book for readers who prefer dialog over description and prefer plot over character development. This book is filled up the wazoo with character development but has a snail-paced plot driving it along.