I was recently in Chile and heard and saw a lot related to the Pinochet regime. We were told the country is still very divided amongst people who lived through that era. So S. R. Wilsher’s book, The Glass Diplomat, was particularly interesting.
The Glass Diplomat is told from the perspective of Charlie Norton, who moves to Santiago with his father in the summer of 1973, right before Pinochet took power. Charlie’s father owns a factory and refuses to produce arms for the military. He disappears soon afterwards, and Charlie is sent home to his family in England by the wealthy and powerful Abrego family, left to wonder what happened to his father. As an adult, Charlie becomes a journalist and uses his connections to cover the situation in Chile, which has grown increasingly oppressive. He’s never lost contact with the two Abrego daughters, Sophia and Maria.
Some historical background: a military coup overthrew President Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973 (author Isabel Allende is his cousin). Allende committed suicide as the armed forces bombarded the presidential palace. General Augusto Pinochet took control of the country. In 1988, after years of political opposition, a referendum was held, and Chileans elected a new president, Patricio Aylwin.
This book is really rich in historical and local details, although it focuses more on the lives of the characters than the lives of Chilean leadership. The story felt realistic. Charlie doesn’t become a freedom fighter, he goes back to London and becomes a journalist who is genuinely afraid of the Chilean military but feels the need to speak out about his experiences. I also liked that Wilsher explores the history that Britain has with Chile and Argentina. He criticizes Britain for supporting Pinochet but also realizes that political relationships are complicated.
Where the story falters a bit is in its portrayal of Charlie’s relationship with Sophia and Maria. His feelings for both sisters are so entangled (as well as his somewhat-infatuation with their mother) and it wasn’t clear to me that at some point he really gets to know them. Charlie sees them as long-suffering wives and daughters and wants to rescue them – but he doesn’t actually spend a lot of time with them.
I also felt this book went on a bit too long, and the last quarter of the book dragged a bit. There are a few too many journeys and clandestine meetings, as well as Charlie’s lengthy newspaper articles, which I thought detracted from the pace of this novel. Just when the novel should be at its most exciting and emotional, it got a little bogged down.
Wilsher is not Chilean, although he recalls being affected by the news about the coup as a child, and has always wanted to write about the student riots, the oppression, and Britain’s support of the regime. He also notes that the events in Chile have frightening parallels today.
If, like me, you want to know more about Pinochet and Chile’s recent history, you will be interested to read this book. You may also appreciate this book if you’re a fan of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (which is not specific to the Pinochet regime but feels very relevant, especially considering it was written in the early 80s).
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. The book published August 20, 2018.