In one of the many vivid scenes in Isabel Allende’s new novel A Long Petal of the Sea, a young, barely-trained doctor on the Republican side of Spain’s brutal Civil War assists in a battlefield operation to save a soldier’s life:
Carefully removing the bandages, he saw to his amazement that the wound was still open and was as clean as if it had been painted onto his chest…Having worked for nearly three years on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, at first on the fronts at Madrid and Teruel, and then at the evacuation hospital at Manresa, Victor Dalmau thought he had seen everything , become immunized to the suffering of others, but he had never seen an actual beating heart.
As she has so often in her works of fiction and memoir, Allende places the beating hearts of her characters in front of us in A Long Petal of the Sea; this is a novel that challenges our own sense of being “immunized to the suffering of others.” It’s a beautiful, bittersweet epic grounded in the journey of two people—Victor and Roser, the pregnant young widow of Victor’s brother Guillem—who join the hundreds of thousands of refugees who flee their native country in 1938 to escape death at the hands of the Fascists. In Allende’s fluidly sweeping narrative, their odyssey intersects with the fascinating true story of the S.S. Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda on which two thousand Spanish refugees fled from squalid camps in France to Chile—the “long petal of sea and wine and snow,” in Neruda’s words, that gives Allende her title.
A Long Petal of the Sea wraps Victor and Roser’s uneasy partnership in a broader, wrenchingly timely story of exiles torn in a moment from their homelands and thereafter spend their lives wrestling with the question of belonging, and the conflict between the persistence of memory and the need to move forward. Allende leads us through decades of life for Victor and Roser, and as she does so, we travel into the heart of the real-world political calamity that resulted in the author’s own flight from her home country. The result is a call to empathy for all who have to remake their lives in a place strange and new.
Since Allende’s arrival on the literary stage in 1982 with the family saga The House of the Spirits, she has woven history and invention together, allowing each to inform the other as she explores themes of exile and return, oppression and liberation, and, especially, the voices and experiences of women in cultures that often seek to silence them.
The author of two dozen widely acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, a human rights activist, and the recipient of multiple honors including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, Allende continues use her pen to enchant and educate in the same moment. “The only thing I can do is tell stories,” she told us when she joined us in 2017 on the B&N Podcast. With A Long Petal of the Sea, she reminds us once again what a monumental calling that is.
Author photo of Isabel Allende (c) Lori Barra.