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A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

petalChilean author Isabel Allende's latest book is a historical novel in one sense, but also a moving love story set in difficult political times. It follows Spanish doctor, Victor Dalmau through Spain's Civil War to the new life he forges in Chile. Based on the life of a real person, this novel is a wonderful piece of fiction which brings history to life through well-rounded and very real characters. 

Victor is the quiet dreamer of his family, growing up the son of a music professor; Guillem, his older brother an ardent supporter of the communist Republican cause, is charismatic and heroic. As the Franco dictatorship takes over with harsh reprisals, Republicans in their thousands made the arduous journey across the mountains into France, a country that didn't want them either. Among the refugees is gifted pianist Roser, who is carrying Guillem's child. As Guillem is most certainly dead, Victor searches for Roser and vows to take care of her and her baby.

The poet Pablo Neruda is the Chilean consul in Paris, where he organises a ship to transport refugees to Chile. To qualify for passage, Victor must persuade Roser to marry him. The story follows the family's settlement in Chile (described by Neruda as 'a long petal of the sea'), the life they make together, friends and connections, their developing relationship. But around the corner is another political uprising that will rock their world.

A Long Petal of the Sea is a brilliantly engrossing read, taking you through some horrific events of the twentieth century. Each chapter begins with a snippet of Neruda's poetry, events around the poet's life woven into the story. Another real character is Salvadore Allende, the socialist leader from the 1970s who becomes Victor's friend. 

The novel deals with issues such as nationhood, displacement, family and the ongoing effects of war. But it's the characters, particularly fiesty, artistic, clever Roser, and gentle, reliable, hard-working Victor that really stood out for me. They are written with such heart, their struggles against some harrowing situations making the story even more poignant. Meanwhile, Allende puts in all the facts in a very readable way that will save you hunting for background material on the Internet. It makes for a very satisfying read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Posted by JAM

26 March 2021

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