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A Long Petal of the Sea - Isabel Allende (2019)

What a curious mixture of a novel is this book. At once a page turner and at some junctures, a must put down book. If I may be permitted a quote so soon, "Between thirty and forty people died every day, first the children from dysentery, then the elderly from pneumonia, and later on the others, one by one". A put down moment for reflection if ever there was.

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It is a story well writ within the framework of verifiable historical events. The Spanish civil war. A plethora of characters are introduced and fleshed out well. Some are discarded. Some take on almost mythical capabilities making them seem a little flat and implausible. Victor the main protagonist, part paramedic, part saint, part concert guitarist. His brother, Guillem, the crude but never mean pugilist having found his calling in the greatest battle of all. A battle of philosophies for the people, against those who would take their freedoms simply because they could. Those who discriminated on race, colour, accent. Take your pick. Anything that could be pointed at or even simply impuned. Hard to reconcile the two sibling types from the same intellectual nest.

The novel then, after the defeat and internment in the concentration camp, pivots, the doings of the upper classes are revealed (several of the first quarter protagonists are too descended from the intelligencia). We're shown the demi-elite of Chilean society where wealth cannot purchase status and cousins are married behind enclaves. All the time nervous glimpses are cast across at the heinous situation in Spain. Order is restored but at what cost ? How can such a ruinous and debase conflict ever be bourn again ?

Then World War II begins.

There is an agenda being drawn out here. Allende is wrapping multiple messages in an almost Mills and Boon package. There's the facts of a history forgotten and covered up. It's an exposition for the unknowing. An educatative process but there is also invitation to contemplate. To contemplate the origins and mechanisms of oppression. To this end it is a stealth missile of opinion and philosophy. But Mills and Boon it is not. I was too unkind. It is well writ as I have said. We'll worth the read. The characters are, where required, likeable. The pace varies A LOT. Slow thoughtful descriptions oppose lightning fast changes. In one instance twelve years between paragraph end and beginning of the next.

The ones I can't seem to forget though are the children, who died by the dozen, in the sand of a beach. Which was a concentration camp, for refugees. In a nation, then not at war. This is not a pop at the French. They were a nation almost overwhelmed. The sad fate of children runs through the book from pampered but isolated through to the abandoned, kidnapped through to the simply murdered. This is a back drop to the huge events of the world and the stories of the main adult characters.

This is a worthy novel perhaps deserving of three whole books. But as it is, it's a salutary page turner.

George Stuart (Lismore Chapter)

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