It feels like I’d need to take a month off just to write about this book. I finished it today (December 29th), and my head is swimming. A few words have occurred to me, to describe this novel, as I’ve worked (yes, worked, at times) through it: unflinching, brutal, raw, frustrating, difficult, touching, and compelling.
There’s a lot I wish to cover, much I’ll forget, and even more that just won’t occur to me until enough time passes. I think I’ll need to read this again someday.
Content Warning: this book has depictions of rape, abuse, war, and torture.
A large cast of characters
The House of the Spirits is a novel that spans multiple generations and depicts the lives of a large family, their joys and tragedies, often in the context of political upheaval. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with so many characters, nor one that spans several generations before. That was part of the challenge of reading this book. Once I adjusted, it felt like I was there with each character over a long period.
One effect of this, for me, was that at the beginning of the novel I grew focused on characters—particularly Rosa and Esteban—only to find out Rosa would die and Esteban would become a pretty evil dude. But the story moves you along—it’s not just about two separated lovers against the world. Instead, the story takes you to several parts of a family tree.
On magical realism
I also do not have much experience reading books that feature magical realism, and I’m still unpacking some thoughts on it. I found that over time, the magic becomes the reality (and less magical) if that makes sense. Accepting it as part of the book meant that it was like salt (from a magically moved salt cellar) innocuously sprinkled over reality.
A narrator who knows "the future"
I found myself frustrated at times, by the dropped hints and declarations of what would come to pass for characters in the future. At times, I felt like the narrator was spoiling the story for me—telling me a character would die, or never be seen again after a certain event. There is a certain power being wielded by a narrator who declares what will happen to a character.
For much of the novel, I didn’t understand why the story was being narrated in this style. That was on me. The very first paragraph of the novel declares that "[Clara was] never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own.” I must admit that I breezed right over that. So for much of the novel, I wasn’t sure who might be talking, nor why the novel was told/written as it was.
Still, when you come across a passage like this:
“Jaime, who at that time was preoccupied and more or less continued to be until the day they killed him, could not believe it, but his niece was so insistent that he agreed to ask his father at the dinner table. The old man’s answer removed any doubts.”
It can be quite wrenching. It happens a lot in the text.
Also jarring was the switching of the narrator to Esteban Trueba randomly throughout the book. While reading, this jump didn’t make much sense to me. It’s only at the end of the book when Alba shares how her grandfather and she worked together to put together the story, that things become clear. Also, at the end of the book, Alba mentions that Clara’s notebooks were grouped not chronologically, but by subject, which somewhat retroactively describes the layout of the book’s chapters. I thought that was clever.
A high-speed train
A times this novel felt like I had been put on a train. I would watch the scenery out the window whip past me, then, the train would stop at a station, and I’d have a moment to soak up the environment. I found this occurred often in the book when something bad was foretold or in the act of happening to a character—I would be racing along to find out what would happen next, only to find myself slowing down to experience an often beautiful, descriptive prose right before those critical moments.
Multiple times in the book, one set of characters approach another in dire circumstances — Férula when she is found dead, or Jamie and Alba going to see Amanda and rescuing her from her ill-health, for example. In both of these moments, the narration both beautifully and hauntingly describes the setting. I felt like my train was coming to an abrupt stop and giving me a moment to take in the reality of what was about to happen on the ride—and then it would pick up again and carry me on.
There are so many characters and my thoughts are so muddled on what I felt and thought of their journeys. Entire essays could be written about single characters in this book.
I felt like I watched most of Esteban Trueba’s life take place. Kind of wild. What was also wild was seeing him go from a romantic suitor to a serial rapist and abusive _ patrón_. That was a lot to unpack. There’s something very challenging about a book that exposes you to someone who commits evil acts but then continues to expose you to the person so that you must see more sides of them. There are several moments in the book where we see tenderness in Esteban (although most are in his senior years). It pushes you to see characters not as an evil (or good) person to a person who does and has done evil (or good) things.
I would be keen to read some feminist analyses of this book; especially on Clara. Often, she seemed a woman who defied the ability to be owned or directed, contrary to what Trueba expected. But I had to stop myself and ask is that true? Her clairvoyance suggests that she had autonomy from a young age. Yet, she was still subjected to Esteban’s oppression and abuse. It raised the question for me of whether Clara’s magic and clairvoyance were a necessity to somewhat ascend beyond patriarchal dominance. But, on the other hand, I think I might be barking up the wrong tree with questions of autonomy and personal freedom. Maybe it’s the marvels of a generation-spanning strength and resilience that matter here, and like Clara bearing witness to life, we do the same. There’s a lot to be said to for generational differences and the advancements of various types of feminism and other 'isms' that would have all taken place in the span of the four generations of characters.
There are so many other characters that I would like to write about, but for the sake of brevity and my cloudy thoughts, I’ll leave it at that. I was moved by the stories of Jamie and Nicolas — and was surprised to see them become actual adults, so different from the descriptions of them as kids. Miguel and Alba’s love story is very beautiful, and there is so much to discuss in terms of romance and politics.
Pedro Tercero García, Transito Soto, Esteban García, Pedro Segundo García, Amanda, Miguel, ah — there’s so much to discuss. And what about The Poet and The Candidate/President? Some of it will have to wait for another re-read.
The fox and the hens
The novel begins with depictions of class striation and ends with it too—it begins with the micro as we focus on Esteban as _ patrón_ of the haciendas and then at the end, on the macro, with the the coup. Esteban’s political role spans the entire novel, and we see his extremism rise and fall.
Like with many large topics and -isms, I feel woefully inept to provide critical analysis. So I won’t. But, I’m glad for my exposure to the ideas of these characters—not just because they appeared and disappeared, filed away in my mind for later, but because I was able to follow the character’s ideologies and watched them expand, shrink, be criticized and analyzed, and change throughout the book. Even seeing Trueba apologize for his actions after the coup was an insightful moment in the text.
The story stays political most of the time, but I think that in the middle we are brought into the lives of the cast in a less capital-P-political way. Instead, we are exposed to the slices of life of people in love, people fighting, striving, and struggling, and in the background, the political world looms over them, perhaps more insidiously than openly. We watch Jamie, for example, as he struggles to continue to help the poor, not unlike his mother and grandmother helping in the Misericordia district—and we are exposed to how the conditions for the poor and impoverished change as the novel evolves. We see the characters viewpoints come up against each other:
"Jaime was convinced that after so many years of struggle the Socialists were finally going to win. This he attributed to the fact that the people had become conscious of their needs and their own strength. Alba would repeat Miguel’s words: that only through armed struggle could the bourgeoisie be toppled. Jaime was horrified by any form of extremism and held that guerrilla warfare is only justified by tyranny, where the only solution is to shoot it out, but that it would be an aberration in a country where change can be obtained by popular vote."
A history lesson
When I was more than 3/4 done the novel I was starting to wonder how much of the narrative was steeped in reality. So I jumped on wikipedia. I learned that the novel was based in Chile although it was never specifically stated that and that characters such as the poet and the candidate were based on true-to-life characters in Chile:
The story details the life of the Trueba family, spanning four generations, and tracing the post-colonial social and political upheavals of Chile – though the country's name and the names of figures closely paralleling historical ones, such as "the Candidate/President" (Salvador Allende) or "the Poet" (Pablo Neruda), are never explicitly given.
I also didn't realize that the author's father was first cousins with President Allende. This brought a whole new layer of context into my reading of the book. Now I also want to read some of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, as well.
The Hour of Truth & Epilogue
The final two chapters of the book are heart-wrenching and beautiful. I raced along to finish it. Despite the torture and rape that Alba endures—her closing remarks in the epilogue yield hope and wisdom that seem beyond her years (which seems fitting considering her thoughts on linear time and the consequences of one’s actions). I would like to copy the entire last two pages here, but I won’t - it seems a little crass—and so much of its momentousness comes from having read the whole book.
Sadly, I had to rush through parts of this book—and I think that contributed to some of the confusion I felt reading it. It challenged some of my weaker reading muscles.
If you read it, I’d love to hear what stood out for you!
Next month (January 2024) I’ll be reading The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen.