In “Island Beneath the Sea,” Chilean author Isabel Allende deviates from her usual setting of an unnamed South American country. Instead, the novel takes place primarily in Haiti and New Orleans. It is a tale of slavery, abuse, love, loss, sorrow, revolution, generation gaps, and incest. (I definitely wasn’t expecting the incest…)
The novel begins when Toulouse Valmorian, a young Frenchman who enjoys Rousseau, is summoned to Haiti by his father, who is dying of syphilis. Valmorian finds that he is now the family breadwinner, and the heir to a Haitian sugar plantation. All of his former ideals fail him and he ends up becoming a wealthy slaveowner. He tries to hold himself to higher standards than his peers, but still is responsible for many horrors.
Upon deciding to marry, Valmorian buys the young Tete, as a domestic slave for his wife. Tete’s story becomes the focus of the novel, with the perspective often switching between two characters. As Valmorain’s wife succumbs to mental illness and deteriorates, he begins raping Tete. She has two children with him, one of whom is taken away from her. Meanwhile, Tete becomes the caretaker of Valmorain’s legitimate child.
As a response to the brutality on the island, the Haitian slaves rebel. I was greatly impressed by the way that Allende managed to portray all sides of the rebellion–you see why it happened, why it was justified, why it was inevitable, and how instead of righting wrongs, it became a bloodbath.
Despite her affair with one of the revolutionaries, Tete decides to stay with Valmorain and helps them to get off of the island, with the motive of protecting both her children and Valmorain’s son, whom she loves as her own. They move briefly to Cuba and then to New Orleans, where conditions are somewhat better than in Haiti, but which has an entirely different culture.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel. I did wish that I could have seen more of Tete’s feelings on the events that shape her life, but at the same time, I can understand why Allende chose to keep them hidden. We don’t see much of Tete’s thoughts because of the fact that many of the characters in the book deny that she is even capable of thought. We learn her emotions in her diary-like reflections every few chapters, which fill in the gaps about prior events. I think it worked though, largely because the things that were left unsaid were more powerful than the things that were.
I also enjoyed reading about the secondary characters, which were more intriguing than the main ones. For example, we see Violette, the mixed-race prostitute who, with the help of her slave Loula (who has a solid business sense), is able to manipulate her society and get rich. We also see Dr. Parmentier, who realizes that the slaves have a more sophisticated medical knowledge than he does. Parmentier is one of the few characters who even in Haiti questioned the morality of the status quo regarding slavery. Parmentier also maintained his own hidden mixed-race family, effectively leading a double life between his professional and family worlds. Yet another fascinating character is Pere Anthony, a very tolerant and open-minded Catholic priest who takes the Biblical message of tolerance and kindness to heart. Respected by blacks, whites, pirates, and gangsters as a living saint, he is able to help give a voice to those whose troubles normally wouldn’t be expressed or tolerated.
While I found the novel to be well-written and interesting, it was more depressing than Allende’s other novels (which tend to be only semi-depressing and end on a hopeful note). At the same time, Haiti’s history was very turbulent, and the heaviness and gloom in the novel are historically accurate, and thus it couldn’t really be handled with rainbows and sunshine. It’s a good book, but don’t expect a happy ending–in fact, reading the novel made me very glad that I live in this century. I would recommend “Island Beneath the Sea” to anyone interested in Haitian history.