Picture a gigantic, Florentine bed, carved with dolphins and sea creatures, and topped with a ruby red canopy, being carted around the streets of San Francisco in 1862 in defiance of a rich man's mistress. This is the scene that opens Portrait in Sepia, the latest from international best-selling author Isabel Allende, and it sets the stage for what is sure to be her next success.
Portrait continues the story of the del Valle family, whose characters and quirks are introduced in The House of the Spirits and revisited in Daughter of Fortune. This time the story is told from the point of view of Eliza Sommer's granddaughter, Aurora del Valle. The novel moves from San Francisco to Chile as Aurora discovers her Chinese, American and Chilean heritage and the traumatic event that brought her into her grandmother Paulina's care when she was five.
Memory, particularly the way it changes over time, is a common theme of exploration in many of Allende's works. Through oral storytelling, writing and photography, Allende's characters record the histories of their families in compelling ways. As Clara chronicles the mundane and unearthly happenings of one branch of the del Valles in The House of the Spirits, Aurora attempts, through her fascination with the new discovery of photography, to fix the events and people of hers. She hopes that her pictures will record life objectively, but finds that over time, perspective changes and clarity fades. She also discovers that each person sees something different in the same scene, just as each of her family members holds a different piece of the puzzle of her background. Wishing to fix her story in the "durable clarity of a platinum print," Aurora finds that "I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties," much like the sepia tones of early photographs.
Peopled with extraordinary women, Portrait is an epic novel that traces the changes, tragedies and hopes at the end of the 19th century.
Allende has once again proven that the male-dominated province of Latin American literature has room for a strong female voice. Combining the details of everyday life with historical reality, she has produced another powerful novel with great heart.
Kelly Koepke writes from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.