Review: Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

I love Isabel Allende’s books, and so was excited to read this latest, especially as the Haitian revolution is a fascinating topic.  I was also a little nervous because the Haitian revolution is extremely violent by all accounts, both in the treatment of slaves and in the slaves’ violent uprising against the whites.  One thing I appreciated about this book was that the violence, while not minimized, was also not so graphic as to be too disturbing (contrast with the well-written but graphic All Soul’s Rising by Madison Smartt Bell, which has images I have never gotten out of my head).

Overall I was disappointed.  It seemed like a good historical depiction of the slave revolt, but didn’t cover the complexity of the larger revolution adequately.  Allende draws the important parallels, between the French revolution, the slave trade in the US and Europe, and military conflicts between France, Spain and Britain that all led to the creation of an independent Haiti.  However, she doesn’t really see the story through, covering about half the chronology from uprising (1791) to Haitian independence (1804). At one point she shifts the story from Haiti to the US, and I felt like I was being taken away from the real story.

My biggest problem was with the main character, Tete, who is a slave purchased at the beginning of the book as a young girl, to tend to the mistress of a plantation owned by Toulouse Valmorain.  I just never come to feel anything for this character, and she never becomes someone whose outcome I’m interested in.  I had a hard time understanding her motivations, which always center around the children in the story (some hers and some not) – she gives up love, passion, freedom, multiple times in the name of these children.  Children she will never be allowed to claim or raise. I realize that if I was a parent I might feel differently – but I couldn’t help but feel that I might have rejected some or all of these children at some point in her story, or at least thought hard about it.

Tete is interesting in one aspect – her character is shaped by being born into slavery, so perhaps her character, which I feel is dispassionate and overly practical, should be viewed with that lens.  She can’t make decisions for herself because she has never been given that ability.  She resents her treatment by the master but has been conditioned her entire life to accept it.  She has been raised to serve others and that is what she does.  And yet the trouble with that is that she fails to grow as an individual.

Valmorain is an interesting character because of his moral ambiguity – he dislikes the torture and starvation of slaves but doesn’t have any problem with the ownership of slaves.  Also, while he rejects physical cruelty, he never recognizes the cruelty of  his rape of female slaves, or the selling of their children.

One point was illuminating for me about the history of slavery in Haiti and the US.  At one point Valmorain realizes that the price of the slaves, which is much higher in the US than in Haiti, actually influences the treatment of the slaves.  In Haiti, slaves cost so little that it’s more cost-efficient to work them to death than to feed and care for them.  It is interesting to think about the excessive cruelty to slaves in Haiti, which ultimately leads to their freedom, as being influenced not just by human morality but by economics.  (And yet, George Bernard Shaw said the same thing – when we give the poor just a little to live on, they have something to lose and it keeps them obedient.  Give the poor nothing, as the French did, and you have revolution.)

Finally, the storyline with Valmorain’s son and daughter at the end was not believable and too disjointed from the historical plot.  As I said in the beginning of the review, the Haitian revolution consists of years of complex, multi-country, multi-ethnic struggles that would be hard to adequately portray in any book.  Allende, by diverging into a fairly strange personal story at the end, gives short shrift to the conflict she is writing about.

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