Allende’s survival song
As a storyteller, Isabel Allende is concerned with the most universal of themes: spirituality, motherhood, love. And in Island Beneath the Sea, her first work of fiction since 2006, she asks us to confront a fundamental need that, for most, is taken entirely for granted: freedom—its cost, worth and meaning.
The novel follows the life of Tété, a slave in the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) at the turn of the 19th century. Her master is Toulouse Valmorain, a sugarcane plantation owner. Throughout their inexorably intertwined lives, he depends on Tété to care for his ailing, insufferable wife; act as a mother to his son; and satisfy his sexual desires, a horrific chore that leads to their bastard child—the beautiful Rosette, whom Tété loves unconditionally, in spite of her painful genesis.
After the death of Valmorain’s wife, during the slave rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture, Tété saves her master’s life: She warns him that the plantation will be burned by rebels, and they flee to Cuba, then New Orleans. As a condition for her favor, Tété asks Valmorain to sign a paper granting freedom to her and Rosette. He agrees, although it takes years for the promise to be realized.
Despite the tragic nature of the story, there are uplifting moments in Island Beneath the Sea, especially when Allende writes about female self-reliance and the power of Tété’s faith in the loa of Voodoo. Also deeply affecting are her portrayal of the madness of racism and the warped societal codes it engenders.
Island Beneath the Sea is classic Allende—sensual, gripping and infused with a touch of magic. And though she lives through many heartbreaking moments, Tété is nothing if not a survivor and an inspiration. She will take her place alongside her many literary sisters: Blanca Trueba, Eliza Sommers and the long line of resilient female characters from Allende’s boundless imagination.