Book review: Isabelle Allende’s “A Long Petal of the Sea”

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Photo courtesy of Hannah Koehler

Though already a best seller in Latin America and Spain, Isabel Allende’s “A Long Petal of the Sea,” translated by Nick Ciator and Amanda Hopkins, arrived in the United States Jan. 21. Allende, a widely renowned Chilean author, unfolds 60 years reflecting individuals whose lives progress despite the turbulent time in Spanish and Latin American history. 

The novel centers around Victor and Roser Dalmau, who flee the Spanish Civil War and immigrate along with 2,000 other Spanish exiles on the SS Winnipeg to Chile. The cargo ship, the SS Winnipeg chartered by poet Pablo Neruda, is one element among many that is based on reality. The Chilean poet, one of the most prolific and popular of the  20th century poets, really did charter a ship to bring Spanish refugees to Chile. 

Neruda is integral throughout the book. In Allende’s acknowledgement, she thanks him “for his poetry, which has always accompanied me.” Within Nerudo’s poem, “Cuándo de Chile, ” Allende found inspiration for the title in the line “OH Chile, largo pétalo de mar y vino y nieve,” which translates to “Oh Chile, long petal of sea and wine and snow.”

The book follows the lives of Victor and Roser Dalmau as well as other characters in Chile and dives into realities of displacement, exile, migration and constructing a life amidst political turmoil. While dealing with heavy subjects, this novel also depicts the love that slowly grows between the Dalmaus, who are not married for love, but so they may flee from Spain on the Winnipeg. 

The novel is grounded in reality. Many elements of the novel, including the trip on the Winnipeg, the dark history of the Spanish Civil War and the coup d’etat against Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende, were not fictionalized. Allende did extensive research for the book.

“This is a novel, but the events and historical individuals are real,” according to Allende’s acknowledgements. “The characters are fictional, inspired by people I’ve known…I’ve had to imagine very little, because as I was doing the exhaustive research I carry out for each novel, I found I had more than enough material.” 

For a novel that is just over 300 pages, the storyline is ambitious. “A Long Petal of the Sea” spans decades and crosses oceans. The development of the main characters as well as the many accompanying characters is incredibly immersive and engaging. Allende also manages to convey the reality and facts of the political and historical backdrop without seeming like a dry history text. 

My only qualm with the novel is how much is packed in. While it is truly impressive how Allende creates so many intersecting storylines that stretch decades during some of the darkest times in Spanish and Latin American history, it is all squeezed a little tightly into 314 pages. I truly enjoyed this read, but I would not have minded if the story was drawn out a little. 

I would highly recommend “A Long Petal of the Sea ” as an incredibly stimulating read that forces you to contemplate  and compare historical atrocities and past governmental abuses with the realities we contend with currently. While inviting the reader to consider issues of immigration, displacement and the responsibility that humans have to one another, Allende explores the human capacity for strength and love during the darkest of times. 

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