Since reading Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune at the beginning of the year I resolved to read more of her work. Almost at the same time I agreed to supervise A. in a directed reading on magic realism (pointing out that I have no expertise in magic realism didn’t seem to matter as much as my willingness to do it – further evidence to those counting that enthusiasm trumps knowledge – a fact I insist upon each week at trivia in order to maintain my place on the team).
ANYWAY. The book. The House of the Spirits makes many of the top lists for magic realism because its magic is used to unsettle dominant ideas of class and gender. And because it offers such a pointed (and compelling) feminist view on class conflict. The novel makes the top lists for novels because it is brilliantly written. Okay, you want more? Because it seamlessly shifts in time and character in ways that offer nuance and depth to plot and theme. Because it has beautiful writing and crisp images. Because it captures epic love and historical moments with small moments that are at once pointed and sweeping. I loved it less than Daughter of Fortune (perhaps because it had many similar qualities and I had hoped for the new), but I loved it all the same.
If you read my last post on Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, you’ll know that I’m only happy when protagonists suffer and ultimately end up heartbroken and alone (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but whatever). The House of the Spirits is a perfect example of a conclusion that is at once focused on resolution and on continuation. (I’m not sure continuation is the word I’m looking for, so let me go with this a minute). The ending of The House of the Spirits is excellent both because it concludes the plot sufficiently that readers know where everyone is and probably will be, that we feel the conflict has been addressed and resolved AND because it leaves thematic questions open: paternity (in a book preoccupied with lineage and familial connection), politics and community. It’s a different result than the ending of Gone with the Wind, for instance, that leaves the plot very much unresolved, or the ending of The Illegal, which ties everything together with such a bow that you close the book and forget all about its contents. It’s a resolution of plot with a continuation of theme that makes the story linger and resurface as you read other things (or do the dishes). It’s a way of ending that lets the characters live, but doesn’t torment you with wondering what if and when the sequel will be delivered. It is, in short, an excellent ending.
Taking my own advice I’ll end this post… now.
*gentle spoilers* Lawrence Hill probably wants to write a novel with an unhappy ending. He takes his characters through all kinds of challenging and traumatic situations, he sets up plots that beg for dramatic and painful endings, he foreshadows the loss to come. And then… doesn’t deliver. Like The Book of Negroes, Hill’s new novel, The Illegal ends with the triumph of the virtuous over the corrupt, the community over the selfish individual and (you can probably hear it begin swelling around the same time as the last race sequence opens) swelling music as you know the hero is going to save and be saved. It’s a complaint I’d rather not make. I mean who wants to be the reader who asks for more pain for the well-crafted and sympathetic protagonist? It’s just that after experiencing a novel that sets itself up as realistic through the use of careful plot detail and complex character, it feels like an utter novelistic imposition to have such an – unbelievable – resolution. No character, no community – however deserving – achieves such universal satisfaction. [And I’m not a cynic! I’ve been accused of many things in my life, but pessimism isn’t one of them. On the contrary, my optimism is the source of much contention as it’s thought to be unrealistic – and to be fair D. Trump did just win a primary, so maybe it’s time for me to reconsider my position on the relentless upswing of the universe).]
That complaint soundly registered, I’d still recommend the book. With a well-paced and compelling plot, the novel follows runner Keita Ali as he struggles to run – and win – marathons while living as undocumented and ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the (fictional) Freedom State. His needs for winning are as high stakes as they are plentiful: he needs money to save his sister, to pay off his handler, to pay for surgery, to pay to make himself ‘legal’ in the eyes of the state. If these manifold reasons achieve anything (beyond instilling a sort of overwhelmed feeling that Keita will never survive – only to know in the back of your mind that of course he will because Hill can’t let him die [see complaint #1]), it’s the awareness that the insurmountable obstacles facing people in impossible situations are not obstacles of choice. What allows Keita to survive is, in the end, not his exceptional skill (though it helps), but rather the joint efforts of a community. This shift from individual responsibility for circumstance pushes readers to consider a similar shift in assignations of blame when considering those in similarly impossible situations (the timing of the book alongside the global interest in Syrian refugees certainly invites these kinds of parallel questions). Rather than expecting people to fix for themselves through hard work, grit (or incredible skill), we ought to recognize the ways we all need and benefit from shared effort and energy.
Plus the book has some incredible scenes of running that this [super slow] marathon runner enjoyed quite a bit.