One of Allende’s gifts is the ability to create synapses between her characters, resting with the lightest touch on an event or reducing a life to mere sentences. Even Gosset, an aged dog, is “rejuvenated” by Chile, “lucid to the last”. An ambulance driver who aids Roser’s escape fades into the background but is later rediscovered. There are many such resurrections: friends and relatives who provide something crucial before exiting. That random chance, and the atypical trajectory of his love story, are the reasons for Victor’s survival.
Victor Dalmau is a young doctor forced into exile in Chile after Franco’s victory. Together with Roser, his late brother’s one-time lover, whom he marries, he forges a new life which the novel chronicles over more than 50 years. Like all Allende’s work, this book is full of ambition and humanity, although it is ultimately a disappointment. Far too much of the story is told through the words of an omniscient narrator; far too little is shown through the actions and interactions of its characters.
This is a novel of absorbing interest and reads very easily. It will please readers who delight in family sagas, but also those who are interested in the history and political divisions of the 20th century. For the most part these are fairly and judiciously represented, even though Allende’s leftist or liberal prejudices are evident. That said, she is generally fair. The excesses of the Left in both Spain and Chile are admitted, presented in such a way as to allow the reader to understand the reasons for the harsh and murderous reaction they provoked.
Though this novel does not have the magical realism of some of Allende’s other work, it retains a romantic sweep. This generational saga, carrying the reader from the 1930s right through to the early 1990s, is stacked with historical detail, though it often feels like the research takes prominence, and characters take a back seat in their own story. Often, that means that stereotypes come into play, or the characters themselves become emblematic of certain archetypal figures. The two brothers with which the story begins, for example, are Guillem and Victor, one is bulky, manly, and a warrior, the other is skinny, romantic, and poetic.
Allende hasn’t become a worldwide bestseller by writing books about unromantic figures such as engineers, and the hero of this version of the story, Victor Dalmau, is a doctor. The novel begins in 1939 with Victor, who comes from a cultured, middle-class Catalan family, serving as a medical auxiliary with the Spanish Republican Army. Although the novel is free of the full-on magical realism that characterised The House of the Spirits, it sometimes teeters on the brink: it starts with Victor plunging his hand into a dead teenage soldier’s chest wound and kick-starting his heart with a few adroit squeezes.
By the end, the prose reads much more like creative non-fiction than a novel, full of dates and sudden jumps in time. This is explained by the fact that Victor is a real doctor who fled Franco’s Spain; all the huge events that happen in the book really did occur. There are no heroes, just survivors, so imposing a clear plot arc would be a bit superficial. Instead, A Long Petal of the Sea is structured as a series of waves, with tides of sudden catastrophe in which the characters have almost no agency, and ebbs of peace.
It was the poet Pablo Neruda who imagined Chile as a ‘long petal’, and Neruda plays a pivotal role here.
In 1939, moved by the desperate plight of Spanish refugees fleeing from Franco, he chartered a ship to bring 2,000 survivors to his native land...
Although this is fiction, Allende’s epic is deeply rooted in fact, and often reads like a biography — of her homeland not least. Her characters at times seem secondary to the enormity of world events, but they are brought alive by Allende’s generous imagination and brisk, vivid prose.
Her novel is based on real events and individuals. The Peru-born novelist, herself once a political refugee, explores the nature of a person’s roots and why a sense of place is so important. A Long Petal of the Sea is a masterful work of historical fiction about hope, exile and belonging and one that sheds light on the way we live now.