This month sees the return of a literary great whose books I have been reading most of my adult life. I’ve already had the pleasure of reading A Long Petal of the Sea and I enjoyed it immensely. It is a fantastic work of historical fiction set in a period of history that gets little attention in the Western literary canon.
The novel follows a young idealistic couple through the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, with all the loss and suffering that brought, on to the agony of concentration camps at the French border before escaping for a new life in Chile – only to find themselves caught up as political refugees in their new home as the spectre of military dictatorship rears its ugly head.
Covering such an epic period in a single novel seems a Herculean task – after all, this book covers over 50 tumultuous years and, in addition, Isabel weaves into the lives of her fictional protagonists, Victor and Roser, such real-life persons as Salvador Allende and the Nobel Prize-wining Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.
And that’s before we even get into the challenge of Isabel’s writing style. I think it’s been over a decade since I last read one of Isabel’s books but, though I loved them (The House of the Spirits remains her masterclass) I remember being exhausted by them – sentences that went on for pages and overdoses of magical realism left me a bit numb – so I wondered what I would find back in her world.
Well, I feel I’ve been away too long as Isabel’s writing is light, her passages seeming to effortlessly dance across the years. There’s drama and beauty, the intimate and the political. And Isabel punctures her beautiful prose with moments of real darkness as horrors of the Disappeared and atrocities are starkly realised.
This story is one that I sense Isabel has long wanted to tell. The treatment of Spanish refugees at the end of the Spanish Civil War and their flight to Chile is not one that is well-known outside of the impacted communities. And, of course, it is a historical subject with agonising and telling overtones for today’s world too. But this is also a novel that examines the fallout of these social upheavals that shatter class boundaries and bring together communities and people who would never cross paths in more ordinary times.
A Long Petal of the Sea sees Isabel in top form blending the personal and political to manifest the horrors and hope of life as a refugee. A contemporary subject, yes, but one that has a long history. A surprisingly uplifting work that causes us to wrestle with themes such as the nature of ‘home’, the passage of time and the source of hope. I loved every minute of this, I really did. I flew through it.
This tile is published by Bloomsbury; hardback RRP £16.99.