Sirena Reads

reading books to become a better writer

Month: June, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits, often compared to Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, holds a, as Publishers Weekly writes, “distinctive voice, however…being clearer, more accessible, and more explicit about the contemporary situation South America.” Existing in multiple dichotomies, focusing on the links and loops of history, story upon story of love and violence, The House of Spirits shows the literary world how women, and men, should be written: honestly. I’ll delve into this more so in another post, but if you are interested in how real women are best portrayed, open this book.

Approaching this book however, with the search for pure magical realism, much like Love and Other Demons, would be a mistake. The magical elements of this novel, especially in the first few chapters, are at first inconsistent or, if the change was intended, may have been explained or signaled too subtly for most readers to notice. Fortunately, the magical elements become part of the characters and are used, if anything, to elevate the strong individuals. The story occasionally alters between a third-person and first-person narrative. In the first person, I found myself questioning why I was reading the view of such a detestable character (which, trust me, is not an understatement in the first three-quarters of the book), especially when there are numerous interesting people introduced. All is eventually explained, with even the third person speaker becoming apparent. And, yes, the first person narratives serve a purpose, although I would argue that there may be better ways to do what these narratives did.

The book becomes intensely captivating when Clara’s story takes over and the other stories following. We then learn about the family that grows from Clara’s marriage and, like the Trueba household, the characters of the women carry the novel. These relationships and the tensions that grow within this family keep your attention and urges you to keep reading; if only, out of love for these characters. Love, after all, is the recurring theme with the love stories being the most interesting. Like the women, the relationships in this novel are treated honestly, revealing more about the personalities of the individuals involved than focusing on the passions of love alone.

A bit of a long read, numbered at a little less than 500 pages, the novel’s pace never feels dragged out and moves quite quickly considering the many characters you meet. I can earnestly say that nearly every character, excluding maybe a couple, serve a purpose and do not at all disappoint.

The book did lose my interest in the final 100 pages when the novel’s focus shifts from the characters to the degradation of the country and becomes even more shifted when more political turmoil ensues. It is interesting to see the historical parallels between Alba’s unnamed country and Allende’s Chile; however, the novel adapts to Miguel’s views, putting political conviction before love. The novel also adapts to the idea that desperate times calls for desperate measures, with many loose ends appearing quickly tied up, and past transgressions simply melting away.

My criticisms, I should point out, lie in the parts of the novel that seem weak in comparison to the rest of the book; however, in relation to many other modern novels, these “weak” sections would seem extraordinary. It’s an excellent summer read, deserving all the love and attention it receives. The only fault with Allende is that her strongest writing creates extremely high standards that is difficult for any writer to match. Allende’s novel is moving, riveting and, all in all, beautiful

— Sirena


A Gift from García Márquez

One of my favorite writer interviews is a YouTube video my Fiction II professor showed our class. The video, directly titled “Neil Gaiman: Where do you get your ideas from,” gives a small look into the most famously asked but vaguely answered question that many writers, and artists in general, come across. As Neil Gaiman quite humorously puts it “we [writers] don’t really know.” Readers or admirers of any artist often wonder how someone could come up with an idea that produces something so beautiful but, more so than writers, we, as onlookers, barely know. Yes, we can often see, at the very least, a loose connection between an author’s life and their writing. But that, after all, is only rooted in assumptions. Even if our assumptions are correct, we cannot, as outsiders, pinpoint the exact moment in time when an idea sparks with life—not without the help of the artist.

‘Stop by there and see if you can come up with anything.’

In reading Gabriel García Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons (translated by Edith Grossman), fortunate readers will find a letter, preceding chapter one, which explains how the idea for the novel was born by García Márquez himself. If you were not so fortunate enough, here is a scanned copy. In this letter, García Márquez states that Of Love and Other Demons developed from a journalism assignment for a newspaper. He highlights the foreman’s indifference to the discoveries of the unearthed tombs, a missing body and the incredible length of a dead female’s hair, reminding his readers that there, in the mundane and the forgotten, might lie something magical. It’s in this moment when García Márquez recounts a legend his grandmother told him. The pages following reveal the result of this encounter, in which reality and legend merge. “Magical realism” goes beyond the definition of magical elements being presented in a realistic setting. In that definition the word “magical” acts as an adjective for reality, “realism.” But as shown in García Márquez’s letter, through the melding of our world and the unknown, both words coexist to create a new form of reality.

Where do we go from here? As readers and as aspiring writers? If there is any lesson to be learned or skill to steal, that is to search for inspiration everywhere. García Márquez’s final line reads “the idea that the tomb might be hers was my news item for the day, and the origin of this book.”  Do not limit your imagination to the limited understanding of our world. Be amazed at the length of a skull’s hair. Create a fantastic reason as to why a tomb might be empty. Bring the dead back to life, even if only to kill them once more.

“The trouble is you can’t forbid what I think.”

— Sirena