Celia Mullins talks to Book Club about House of the Spirits, the Isabel Allende classic, visceral prose, and Meryl Streep
Hi Celia! How are you, and What are you reading?
Hey Phoebe! I’m great thanks. I’ve just finished reading The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende.
What’s it about? What are the characters called? Do you like them?
It’s a familial saga, spanning four generations, set within the turbulent political and social context of postcolonial Chile, and falling within the genre of magic realism. Of course there’s a lot more to it, but that’s it in the barest of nutshells (and according to Wikipedia).
The family is called the Trueba family, Esteban Trueba being the man of the house and often the protagonist. Esteban marries Clara (the clairvoyant) and they have an assortment of children, grandchildren, and If I remember correctly are on the cusp of great-grandchildren by the end. Some of the characters are fairly likable; I held a flame for one of the sons, Jamie, and the granddaughter Alba, who seem amongst the kindest and best hearted of the Truebas. But some of the characters are less likable. Estaban Trueba is a fascinatingly dark figure. He gets his rape in early, which is daunting because you know you’re just about to settle down to the rest of the book with a protagonist who appears misogynistic and bitter, but although he darkens and ruins the family on a number of levels, you ultimately empathise with him – which is a pretty effective angle to spin in a work of fiction: a baddie whose psychological makeup the reader has access to and who ultimately holds a chink of valour, goodness, regret or humanity etc. And he’s not the worst the book has to offer in terms of big psychotic baddies – Alba’s lifelong tormenter takes that mantle of evil in the novel.
The relationships that play out in the novel are frustrating for a needy reader but in actual fact probably add rather than take away from the book as a literary work.
What’s the prose like? Any stand-out features that need a mention?
Yes, one thing that I think could be mentioned in terms of prose is that the book gets very dark and sinks very low in places, and this is often accompanied by an entirely unflinching prose. Allende largely wields this to articulate human and often physical suffering. In these pits of the novel, the vernacular becomes bodily and gory. It is stunning, visceral writing, these passages ride very close to the knuckle, but she never gives an inch. For example, this is when Estaban is visiting his dying mother, having not seen her for years, ‘Esteban pulled back the threadbare damask quilt and saw his mother’s legs. They were two bruised, elephantine columns covered with open wounds in which the larvae of flies and worms had made their nests and were busy tunnelling; two legs rotting alive with two outsized pale blue feet with no nails on the toes full to bursting with the pus, the black blood and the abominable animals that were feeding on her flesh, mother, in God’s name, of my own flesh…’. So that’s definitely one stand out feature.
The other thing here is not so much about the prose as it is about the structure and pace of the novel as a whole. It moves with a slow but inevitable and relentless progress, and here it well suits its content, the steady and unyielding movement through a lifetime. The book reads as if a magnifying glass has illuminated one particular aspect or generational passage, but there is awareness that there exists a temporal and spatial ‘other’ lying just out of reach, yet tangible.
The prose is written within the genre of magic realism, which exacerbates an unsettled sense of the present where the future is projected, predicted and unavoidable, the past is repeated and reflected, and never really gone. The present itself is slippery and ever changing. Certainly, with the ending there is a certain fulfilment wherein something that was set in motion long ago seems to find its poignant realisation.
Would it make your Desert Island Books if you were actually going to a desert island, not just on a radio show?
No, there is no way The House of Spirits would make the cut, as much as I loved it! It’s just not the right book for a desert island situation. It would be too much of a slow painful plod through the tragedy of life for someone stranded on a desert island alone with only one book. I would be already miserable enough because of being stuck on a desert island without having to repeatedly read a book about the relentless grind through life. Which is not actually my opinion of The House of Spirits or of life for that matter. But I think if I had to read it for the rest of my life I would grow to resent it. I would have to take something very, very long and quite a bit happier onto the desert island I think. Something with a happy ending for sure!
Do you like knowing what an author looks like, and/or what their voice sounds like, or do you prefer to remain ‘blind’ in this respect whilst reading? I like hearing authors, but not seeing them (the opposite of children, really) – seeing and hearing together being the worst of all possibilities.
Even if I know what the author looks like, I don’t really think about it while I’m reading the novel, the book constructs its own world so the author’s face sort of gets subsumed by that. I think it’s quite irrelevant to the book and the experience of reading it. So I’m not really fussed either way. But I absolutely love being read to, it’s such a great pleasure! If it’s the author reading then I guess that’s even better!
On a similar note, if there was a film adapted from this book, who would play the main character? Would you go and see it? Would you feel bound to go and see it, knowing you’d be disappointed anyway?
Yes, that is precisely what would happen! I would absolutely have to go and see it in the full knowledge that I would be let down by it. Even if it was a really good film in its own right I would just be disappointed if the characters that were projected on the screen were different from the ones that had been projected in my head whilst I was reading it. Actually I just looked on IMDB and turns out they did make a film! In the 90s… So I will definitely have to watch it and no doubt be let down by it. It’s got Meryl Streep playing Clara which is fitting because Clara is quite whimsical and otherworldly and I always think of Meryl Streep like that.
What was the last book you read that wrapped you up in itself? Do you recommend it to people, or do you want things to remain just between you and the book?
I’m not sure, I think it’s really rare that a book totally wraps me up, but when it manages to, it’s amazing! I love being consumed by a book so I think if it does that well then the author has succeeded resoundingly. I don’t think we should be too critical of prose and sensitive to a sentence that isn’t an exquisite crafting, after all a novel is basically a story, so if it wraps you up in a compelling story then I think it’s a job well done. If you’ve been successfully wrapped up in a book it’s always very sad to finish it. It leaves you reeling and I think without being too melodramatic I can say that there is a certain sense of loss. You do feel acutely alone in the room directly afterwards and are left gaping into the abyss with no immediate way forwards. I mean that does sound incredibly melodramatic, and the feeling only goes on for about 5 seconds of your life, but the point is that even at a very small scale there is that tangible sense of loss in the finishing of a really good book. With The House of Spirits in particular, perhaps because it is a saga, spanning many generations and telling the lives of so many diverse characters, it was really hard to finish.
This might be flying in the face of everything the Manchester University Book Club stands for but there are few things that have ever wrapped me up like Harry Potter did. It wasn’t particularly well written, in fact it was actively badly written in places, but the story was just fantastic. And she has a way of writing that just hooked you in, it was incredibly satisfying to read, I think there is a reason why it’s such a successful series. Although having said all of that, if a book is well written it can be beautifully and endlessly expressive so it’s actually probably a bit of both. I think it is really satisfying sometimes to slog through a book that feels like it’s good for your brain, something really meaty and heavy. I think another thing that makes me really like a novel is when a choice of words precisely exemplifies a particular thought, feeling, or sensation and is a perfect literary articulation of something the reader has experienced, either physically or mentally. That moment when you think “Oh God that is EXACTLY what that feels like/looks like etc”. That perceptiveness, and the ability to eloquently crystallize a sensation seldom discussed or even considered, but still relevant to the reader, I think that is really arresting, and there is a certain amount of poetry in that.