A few years ago, I picked up Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune. Allende cast her spell on me with her characters and her storytelling. Oddly enough, several years passed by before I read another Allende work. As it happened, I chose her latest work Island Beneath the Sea which I requested through HCPL.
Allende tells the stories of numerous people living on 1700s Saint-Domingue (Haïti). First, she introduces readers to the young Toulouse Valmorain. He and the female Valmorains live comfortably in France thanks to his father’s sugarcane plantation, Saint Lazare, in Saint-Domingue.
His planter father sends a letter, requesting Valmorain to come the island in 1770. Valmorain arrives on the island, receiving a rude awakening. The elder Valmorain can no longer run Saint Lazare. So, it falls to Valmorain to make a go of it, turning Saint Lazare into a profitable plantation. Settling into Saint-Domingue, Valmorain marries a Spaniard Eugenia living in Cuba. In the midst of all of this, Valmorain purchases a slave to serve Eugenia.
This slave is a child named Zarité – called Tété. She’s the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a sailor. Tété leads a harsh existence and discovers comfort in voodoo and the slave community. Numerous passages in the book are related by an adult Tété. The rest of the novel told in third person.
Tété endures many abuses and hardships at the hands of Valmorain, who aims to be a “benevolent slave owner.” Yet, they later flee to New Orleans – together.
All I can say without further spoiling the plot is that I found the storytelling and character development of Tété mesmerizing. I also enjoyed learning about the enterprising courtesan Violette and Dr. Parmentier, the man of science with twenty-first century ethics. I even appreciated the complexity of Valmorain. Characters such as Gambo, Maurice, Rosette, Zacharie, and the Murphy family seemed unrealized, though. I could’ve easily done without Hortense! Nonetheless, I guess there was need for such a catalyst.
I also felt Allende did well with the rising action and then slammed the reader into a wretched nightmare that was Tété’s early life. Then, in the New Orleans part, the novel seemed rushed. I wanted to find out more about New Orleans life as well as denouement for Tété and her family. Overall, it was good storytelling but the plot needed help.
Three Out of Five Pearls
France, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Cuba, New Orleans
For more on Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea, please check out the following links: