Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea

In the late 1930s, civil war grips Spain. When General Franco and his Fascists succeed in overthrowing the government, hundreds of thousands are forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must unite in a marriage neither of them desires.

Together with two thousand other refugees, they embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile: “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” As unlikely partners, they embrace exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war. Starting over on a new continent, their trials are just beginning, and over the course of their lives, they will face trial after trial. But they will also find joy as they patiently await the day when they will be exiles no more. Through it all, their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going. Destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world, Roser and Victor will find that home might have been closer than they thought all along.

A masterful work of historical fiction about hope, exile, and belonging, A Long Petal of the Sea shows Isabel Allende at the height of her powers.

There are two types of people in war, those who have learned to accept their fate and those who have fought hard against it.

Isabel Allende’s 23rd novel, “A Long Petal of the Sea”, is set in the first half of 20th century Spain during the Spanish Civil War as General Francisco Franco brought about the downfall of the Republican government. When Barcelona fell to General Franco, almost half a million Spaniards crossed the border into France. The Spanish refugees mostly left on foot, or by cart or in a truck.  The thread of refugees was the target of intense Nationalist and Italian air raids. Enveloped in cold and snow, they began their journey across the mountains to reach France only to be met with harsher conditions while detained at internment camps as if hope truly abandoned them during those moments. 

It was through these factual events in history spanning generations of characters that Victor Dalmau’s story unfolds. From being a subsidiary doctor to the wounded and the dying to becoming a licensed doctor who had earned the respect of peers and enemies alike, Victor’s fate had been determined from the moment he breathed life into a wounded soldier at the brink of death. His determination and relentless need to prove a somehow anticipated tragic end wrong has pushed him to cleave unto hope by means of practical decisions and rational choices. Determined to survive from their hopeless and undetermined fate within the confines of the concentration camps in Argelès-sur-Mer, Victor and his dead brother’s wife, Roser, decided to marry in order to seek asylum in another country. On board the SS Winnipeg, chartered by Pablo Neruda, the two embarked on a journey to Chile, where they foraged for the home they left behind, across continents toward a country that is depicted as a long petal of the sea.

This is a book that narrates reality at a point in history where dreams were shattered and lives were lost. It spoke about promises and sacrifices: an ode to the dreams of principled yet hopeful youths and the whims and caprices of the privileged.  It is a subtle but rich portrayal of human behavior in times of war. The novel points out that every person responds differently–that choices are independent of beliefs, political and cultural background, and moral upbringing. It is one thing to read a non-fiction book on the accounts of Spanish refugees who have crossed continents to survive, and another to merge it with layers of fictional characters who are as real and palpable as the actual men and women they represent. 

It didn’t feel like I was immersed in a fictional world.  It felt like reading a history textbook requiring my full attention, intent at memorizing key details–a student yearning to look into the history of the Spanish Civil War up until the military regime of Augusto Pinochet to reflect on the pride, greed, and tyranny of bad leaders and the selfless servitude of those who simply wanted to put an end to suffering and hinder the rise of an oppressive government. Allende has magnificently married fiction and reality on the basis of historical truth and what a pleasure it was to be able to read a fictional novel that chronicles real political heroes and tyrants.  

Once again, Isabel Allende has written a detailed narrative that speaks from the heart, borrowed from the pages of history cloaked in both darkness and light. This is a must-read for anyone who finds historical fiction as both enlightening and informative. No one can argue that Allende’s writing reveals in us a yearning to know more about the events of the past.  For how often can we peek into the lives of those who have sacrificed their lives for the greater good? It is only through remembering them and Allende made sure that we do lest we forget.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Isabel Allende

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 336 pages

Publisher: Ballantine Books (January 21, 2020)

ISBN-10: 198482015X

ISBN-13: 978-1984820150

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