Isabel Allende’s powerful new novel could not be timelier. With refugees dominating the news, “A Long Petal of the Sea” poignantly reminds us of a lesson we can’t seem to learn. People typically leave home, not because they want to, but because they have to.
This book brings to life the plight of a refugee family shattered by Spain’s Civil War in the 1930s, following them as they escape Spain in an odyssey first to a refugee camp in France and then to Chile.
With her typical lush and lyrical writing, Allende engagingly shows how historical forces shape the lives of ordinary people. Here, the historical event is the July 1936 military uprising led by Gen. Francisco Franco, whose reactionary forces overthrow Spain’s democratic government, causing a war and immense loss of life.
Two brothers, Victor and Guillem Dalmau, take up the fight against Franco. Victor is a medic; Guillem, a soldier. Before the war, the young brothers lived peaceful lives with their parents and a young woman named Roser, whom their parents adopted and Guillem had grown to love. Guillem dies in battle, not knowing Roser is pregnant with their child.
No one in the Dalmau family wants to leave their beloved Barcelona. But in January 1939, when it becomes clear vindictive pro-Franco forces will prevail, the family flees. They hike over the Pyrenees in freezing temperatures with little food and no possessions, arriving at a French internment camp where thousands of refugees are being held.
In August 1939, Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda charters a freight boat to transport Spanish immigrants from France to Chile, which he calls “a long petal of sea and wine and snow.” Families receive priority, so Victor makes a dramatic choice. He marries Roser and affirms that baby Marcel is his son. The three board the boat and leave for Chile.
After suffering through hunger, lack of sleep and poor sanitation, they’re relieved to leave France but fearful about Chile. They had heard Chileans “considered them to be a mob of Reds, atheists and possibly criminals.” By luck, they meet Felipe del Solar, son of a wealthy, conservative, Catholic Chilean family. While Felipe’s father opposes the resettlement of the refugees, Felipe is empathetic, and invites Roser and Victor to live with him until they find jobs.
Still hoping to return to Spain, Victor and Roser start their life as spouses while stopping short of a romantic relationship. Victor enrolls in medical school and Roser teaches music and performs piano. They both adore Marcel. This novel beautifully explores their evolving, deepening love. Over time, their complicated feelings about Victor’s brother ease and their love intensifies into a real marriage.
But history repeats. In 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet leads a right-wing military coup, resulting in the murder of Chile’s democratically elected President Salvador Allende (Isabel’s father’s first cousin). Having known Allende socially, Victor is imprisoned and tortured. When he’s finally paroled, the family must make another difficult decision: stay in Chile or escape again.
In recent years, millions of refugees have fled from Syria, Guatemala and Mexico as a result of conflict and economic desperation. In “A Long Petal of the Sea,” which illuminates human stories behind the headlines, Allende has written an epic saga about one family’s experience of unwanted exile. Her admiration and empathy for the resilience of refugees find expression in a heartbreaking yet inspiring story.
Katherine Read blogs at readsreading.blogspot.com
A Long Petal of the Sea
Written by: Isabel Allende
Published by: Ballantine Books
Price: $28 (hard cover)
Note: Allende appears in conversation with Michael Krasny at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3, at Dominican University, 20 Olive Ave., San Rafael; $45 ticket includes a signed book. Visit www.bookpassage.com/allende.