Island Beneath the Sea
by Isabel Allende

This month, I embarked in some downtime from the computer and android phone screens to revisit my childhood hobby of reading. I have not written an extensive review in months and this has led to a very horrible fit of lethargy. The funny thing was that I ended up doing a double whammy reading spree on slavery this month. The first of the two books is Isabel Allende’s Island beneath the Sea. The one I am currently reading with much difficulty is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I know, it’s Christmas, so why am I reading these things? I don’t know the answer to that but my fascination to the morbid transcends holidays and modes that are assigned to everyone.

 Complex Relations and Incestuous Bonds

They were made for the complicity of marriage because they were essentially different; he was fearful, indecisive and easy to manipulate, and she had the implacable determination he lacked. Together they would move mountains.

Allende’s language is powerful. And so is her daring to write about taboo topics like INCEST. I actually flinched at the chapter where Rosette and Maurice Valmorain made love. I am not particularly comfortable, despite my usually high tolerance for BDSM and strange topics in books. But it was brilliantly written. Disturbing but well-worded.

Her writing involves third person narrative and some stream of consciousness accounts that are italicized for emphasis. She jumped in and out of these perspectives seamlessly, although not as masterfully as the master of stream of consciousness himself (Leo Tolstoy). Her words are beautiful although there are things that won’t make me grade it a whole 5 or perfect score for a book. It’s probably a 4 to 4.2 if I were to rate it. The reading experience was easy and smooth, typical of a contemporary novel. (I say this because Crime and Punishment has me hiccuping and gasping for breaths this week.)

Religious Intersections

There was an extensive discussion of voodoo or African religious practices and its intersection with Catholicism, which I found quite intriguing. I had no prior background on voodoo before the book but now I have some basic ideas of the dances and the loas. It is super educational. It had bits and pieces of Haiti’s painful history and then there are these insights that can only come from superb research. She was able to paint the era so nicely. But then somewhere later in the book, there was this word “SWAGGER” which kind of jolted me back to the 21st century. I got really distracted. This was such a waste because I was already ensconced in a reader’s experience of being transported out of the pages and into the imagination before I bumped into this rather Justin Bieber-esque word. I hope this book’s editor takes out the word because it jolts you back to the actual era that the book was written.

The Power of an Idea

“He who holds a lot, holds nothing closely.”
– Maurice Valmorain,  Island Beneath the Sea

There were so many layers discussed in the novel. I think that is also why a lot of readers of this book found it too cluttered and less seamless. One will need to limit the number of ideas presented to make it more coherent. Allende did not hold herself back in this book; she practically dabbled in serious issues superimposed on a historical novel. For a historical novel, it’s kind of weak on presenting the chronology of events but it’s strong on affecting and inspiring and educating the reader about certain things.

One of the most striking scenes for me in this novel is when the mulatto son Maurice Valmorain ended up becoming an abolitionist (staunch anti-slavery) when the design of slavery favors him and his family. He had ideas that were world-changing but at the time people were crucified for expressing these beliefs. It actually came to a point where he was disowned. But there was just this one person who planted seeds in his head. And I realize this keenly when you are writing for an audience, you become accountable for the seeds that you are planting in people’s heads. That writing is something that has a considerable influence and as a tool, it can be a healing balm or a weapon of destruction. It is a fascinating and frightening fact to consider. 


“A slave lacks incentives; for him it is better to work slowly and badly , since his efforts benefits
only the master, but free people work hard and save to get ahead, that is their incentive.”
– Don Sancho,  Island Beneath the Sea

In previous blog posts, I aired out my misgivings about how overworked and underpaid most proletarians are and how it often still feels like slavery even when you are a working professional here in my country. So reading about the theme of slavery that runs through the entire book (and there were 457 pages of it) is something that still resonates with me on a personal level.

I do realize however that unlike the real slaves depicted in the novel, I have my own choice to be enslaved by toxic thoughts. All it takes is a change of mind; unfortunately, this is not the case for those slaves who were treated gruesomely in the novel. If you want a feel-good novel to help you relax, this is not the bedtime reading that you should check out. It’s quite morbid and it is best to read it with sufficient mental preparation.

Despite the stressful effects, reading this novel makes me thankful for the FREEDOM I have which is within reach and did not involve sugarcane processing in a plantation under the worst physical conditions that are common in 17th century Africa. Life may not always be fair but it’s not so bad, after all.

War and Rebellion

“In the strategy of war very few things are clear, we move among shadows.”
– Toulouse Valmorain, Island Beneath the Sea

There were countless war scenes and Allende is a genius in being graphic but not didactic in her description of them. I find myself rushing to read some lines just so I will see what happens next to my favorite characters. I sympathized with both protagonists and antagonists and this is one of the best experiences this book gave me as a life lesson: you don’t categorize people as good or evil because they usually fall in a vague middle of the spectrum.

Courage in the Face of Extreme Distress

“We all have an unsuspected reserve of strength inside that emerges
when life puts us to the test.”

– Harrison Cobb,  Island Beneath the Sea

Ultimately, it was hope that kept me from stopping midway in the book. Tete, the main charaacter, is the paragon of surviving and thriving in the midst of trying circumstances. She possessed a clear head unimpeded by the horrible treatment she was subjected to for years. It was about a mother’s love, a woman’s strength, and the pockets of light in the midst of dark things.

I often see people who like saying that only optimism is worth writing about and that lethargy is infectiously negative or must be avoided at all costs. I also read a considerable amount of positive psychology. Optimism is generally good but it’s not good when you are eliminating the role of setbacks and shadows. Because it is really established that supreme hardship is what makes a person deeper, stronger, and more substantial. You cannot fake your way out of depth; it’s either you have it in you or you are just spewing nonsense to your detriment. Even in beautiful paintings, you will not be able to appreciate the beautiful light or vibrant colors if you did not have the dark spots that highlight them on the big picture. I think a famous ancient philosopher also worked on the power of opposites such as light and shade. And it always works to our advantage if we know how to handle negative events with a non-allergic but objective manner. I like good vibes, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes, there are bad vibes and you need to feel those things from time to time to help you appreciate what you have when the wheel of life goes to a more favorable spot on the top.

Blessings in Disguise

“At times what we most fear turns out to be a blessing.”  
-Pere Antoine, Island Beneath the Sea

 This last bit is probably my favorite quote, because at the time of reading the book, I was suffering tremendously from an unexpected event which turned out to be a HUGE BLESSING. Pere Antoine is the saintly character in the book who spews wisdom and embodies the truest tenets of Christianity.

All in all, this book is a blessing to read at this month because it strangely strengthened my resolve as a person. I was a different person after reaching the last page of the book, and for all its stylistic flaws, Isabel Allende is one of the most memorable authors whose works I have the pleasure of reading.

I also watched her TED talk about living a life of passion while I was reading her book and I realized that this author has a lot of fire, the same fire that I am trying to cultivate on my technical and creative pursuits. I really look forward to reading more of her books, although she did not outrank my devotion for collecting Milan Kundera’s creations.