Have you ever seen such cruelty?

I happened to pick up Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea, and now I’m sorry.  Okay, so the cover said it was “[t]he sweeping story of an unforgettable woman–a slave and a concubine determined to claim her own destiny against impossible odds.”  So I was warned.

In my defense, I didn’t expect it to be great literature, and I assumed I’d have to skip some steamy parts (right-o).  But Allende’s earlier novel, The House of the Spirits, was actually a good book — not perfect, but interesting, carefully made, funny, and original.

Island was none of these.  The author apparently felt that what the world needs now is yet another novel about a strong and valiant woman who is cruelly crushed by western culture and masculinity, yet rises from the ashes and manages to learn to support herself and have children and orgasms — but historical!

I’ve never written fiction, but I know an early draft when I see one.  Even if you ignore the loud creaking noise made by the elderly clichés  described above, you will get lost in the disorder of this sloppy work.

Major plot points are exposed so clumsily that you can just hear the author thinking, “Crap, I meant to put that in sixty pages ago!  Well, a deadline’s a deadline — I’ll just cram it in . . . let’s see, here.”

Some characters are elaborately and meticulously introduced, only to evaporate without explanation in the second half of the book; while others leap fully-formed halfway through the plot, leaving the reader to wonder, “Wait, who is this guy?  How did he get to be so important?”  Subplots are hinted at, never to appear again, and satisfyingly huge denouements are promised, but all you get is a fizzle.

There are long, confusing passages of dry historical detail (the book takes place during the Haitian revolution, which should have been interesting) which are followed abruptly by hastily sketched-in descriptions of the cruelty of a slave’s life, the cruelty of a young student’s life, the cruelty of men toward women, etc.  I kept thinking about this scene from Blazing Saddles:

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In Island Beneath the Sea, whole chapters go that way.

The prose (it can’t all be the translator’s fault) is also clunky beyond belief.  Wade through this if you can:

He was amazed by his ardor, renewed every night, and even at times at midday, when he arrived unexpectedly, boots covered with mud, and surprised her embroidering among the pillows of her bed, expelled the dogs with one sweep of his hands, and fell upon her with the jubilation of again feeling eighteen.  (271)

I knew a guy who surprised my embroidering once.  It wasn’t pretty.

So, to sum up:  Women damaged by rape and oppression, healed overnight by a tender lover who’s not so grabby?  Check.

Women controlling their fate through choosing when and where to be slutty?  Check.

Swooning approval of loathsome behavior as long as it’s done consensually in the name of lurve?  Check.

Catholic priest who’s a good guy mainly because he says that voodoo is basically the same as Catholicism, so you go right ahead and bite the head off that chicken?  Check.

Writing whole chapters in italics to show that certain characters are deep souls who speak interiorly? Check.

Dreadfully predictable switcheroo with an inexcusable number of various mixed-race babies?  Check, check, and check.

Railing against the senselessness of racism and sexism while shamelessly exploiting both in lieu of character development?  Check.  (For a quick reference guide:  dark skin=good; female=good.  Light skin=bad, male=bad.   Black female is double plus good; white male double plus ungood.)

Throw in some tutti fruity quasi-lyrical nonsense about surrendering to the power of the drums and the dance, and, according to Allende, you’ve got yourself a novel.  For a more insightful and entertaining exploration of race, just go ahead and watch Blazing Saddles.  It’s twoo, it’s twoo!

(Cross-posted at The Anchoress)

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