Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 January 2020 from Bloomsbury
September 3, 1939, the day of the Spanish exiles’ splendid arrival in Chile, the Second World War broke out in Europe.
Victor Dalmau is a young doctor when he is caught up in the Spanish Civil War, a tragedy that leaves his life – and the fate of his country – forever changed. Together with his sister-in-law, the pianist Roser, he is forced out of his beloved Barcelona and into exile.
When opportunity to seek refuge arises, they board a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to Chile, the promised ‘long petal of sea and wine and snow’. There, they find themselves enmeshed in a rich web of characters who come together in love and tragedy over the course of four generations, destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world.
A masterful work of historical fiction that soars from the Spanish Civil War to the rise and fall of Pinochet, A Long Petal of the Sea is Isabel Allende at the height of her powers.
This is an epic tale that, in Allende’s trademark fashion, sweeps across continents, telling the story of political uprising, repression and the history of dispossessed peoples through the story of one family across the decades since 1939.
I love that Allende bases this work on real events and peppers them with facts about people so that you feel as if you are reading real history as it happens and learning a great deal about the circumstances of the time and how a sense of belonging can be the most important thing a person clings to.
This is the story of Victor Dalmau a young man at the height of the Spanish Civil War. He is studying Medicine and helps look after the wounded in battle, while his younger brother, Guillem, fights for the Republic. Told in the third person, mostly from Victor’s point of view the book follows his life. We learn about his family and Roser (his brother’s girlfriend and one of the students of Victor’s father, a musician), and hear first-hand of his experiences during the war. Roser is pregnant with Guillem’s child when he is killed. Victor vows to look after his brother’s lover and so when it is clear that Franco is winning, they escape into France together, entering into a marriage of convenience.
But the French are not welcoming to Spanish Civil War refugees, placing them in concentration camps with poor sanitation and insufficient food. Victor and Rosa decide to emigrate to Chile on the Winnipeg – the ship that Pablo Neruda organised to bring 2,000 Spanish refugees to freedom in Chile (oh the irony). Victor and Roser settle down in Chile, making a new life for themselves. Rosa pursuing her musical work and Victor becoming a cardiologist. But then, in 1973, comes Pinochet and the fascists take root in Chile, leading to a military coup and the mass murders in the football stadium where Victor Jara was murdered. When even the artists are being murdered, it is time to uproot and flee. Victor and Rosa, long-settled and feeling at home in Chile, become refugees once again.
This time Victor and Rosa head for Venezuela. As they yet again flee, their hope of returning to Spain mutates into a longing for Chile that keeps them going. Their role is to bear witness to the battle between freedom and oppression until finally Roser and Victor find that home is closer than they knew.
A Long Petal of the Sea is a sweeping family saga about belonging which shows us the important contribution that refugees can make to society, which gives the book a contemporary message that is important and resonated loudly with me.
Verdict: An ambitious work which blends the personal and the political to depict the life of a refugee. Sometimes a little wordy, this is a story for today. An epic saga that blends fact with fiction until we no longer know what is real and what imagined but which shows us the important contribution that immigrants can make to society.
Isabel Allende—novelist, feminist, and philanthropist—is one of the most widely-read authors in the world, having sold more than 74 million books. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel won worldwide acclaim in 1982 with the publication of her first novel, The House of the Spirits, which began as a letter to her dying grandfather. Since then, she has authored more than twenty three bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including Of Love and Shadows and Eva Luna. Translated into more than forty two languages. Allende’s works entertain and educate readers by interweaving imaginative stories with significant historical events.