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

Book Review: The Glittering Hour

Selina Lennox is a Bright Young Thing. Her life is a whirl of parties and drinking, pursued by the press and staying on just the right side of scandal, all while running from the life her parents would choose for her.

Lawrence Weston is a penniless painter who stumbles into Selina’s orbit one night and can never let her go even while knowing someone of her stature could never end up with someone of his. Except Selina falls hard for Lawrence, envisioning a life of true happiness. But when tragedy strikes, Selina finds herself choosing what’s safe over what’s right.

Spanning two decades and a seismic shift in British history as World War II approaches, Iona Grey’s The Glittering Hour is an epic novel of passion, heartache, and loss.

“The Glittering Hour” by Iona Grey is a lush portrayal of the glamorous yet outrageous life of the “Bright Young Things” of the 1920s.  Selina Lennox, along with her friends Flick and Theo, were the son and daughters of the high society, aristocrats, and middle-class people: a generation too young to be sent into the battle of the Great War.  Hounded by the paparazzi who were every inch hungry to have a glimpse into the intriguing lives and imminent dissolution of these rebellious, promiscuous and carefree boys and girls, chased around London while notoriously reveling in extravagant parties and theatrics, enjoying treasure hunting in fast cars, and experimenting with drugs. 

Selina’s carefree disposition, embroidered with a carpe diem attitude, had been her family’s cause of concern and disapproval. Adored and favored by her brother Howard from when she was little, Selina’s high spirits were a result of her brother’s favor that she should enjoy life’s pleasures and live for the moment.  After Howard’s death, Selina cocooned her grief by throwing herself into lavish parties with her friends. But when her path unexpectedly crossed with Lawrence Weston, an impoverished artist who knew better than to mingle with someone of Selina’s stature, their lives were suddenly swept from a forbidden love affair to a tragedy that will make them choose between love and practicality.

This novel brought me to tears. Grey’s circuitous and poetic writing is impeccable as the way she has framed a time once loved and lost then brought back to life for her readers to acknowledge and understand. Selina’s narrative reminds me once again why historical novels have always captivated me: to fathom the extremes of human behavior set against the political, social, and cultural circumstances and struggles of a particular era. 

Enthralling, heartbreaking, and hauntingly beautiful, “The Glittering Hour” is a celebration of a generation catapulted into an ironic twist of the remnants of the Great War and the boisterous parade of the plummeting wealth of the once rich and powerful scarred by death and financial duties. A moving tale of love and sacrifice and of life and of death, Grey’s masterpiece of a novel disarms the readers of prejudices, instead ignites a discussion on ethical dilemmas.  The novel’s heartfelt finale proves that love will always find its way in the most glittering hour of our lives.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Iona Grey

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 480 pages

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (December 10, 2019)

ISBN-10: 1250066794

ISBN-13: 978-1250066794

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Love in the time of tragedy is the most sacred form of love.  

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris tells the story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who was plunged into the horrors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death concentration camp meant as the culmination of the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany.  The killing of some six million Jews marked one, if not the most tragic time in the history of mankind. It is almost always inevitable to grieve for such human conditions while celebrating the remarkable tales of those who survived the savagery of the Holocaust.  Lale Sokolov’s journey was no exception. From his sheer optimism to an intense transition to hatred against his circumstances and the Nazis, Lale’s narrative brought us to the power of love and how small acts of kindness and bravery amidst the harrowing atrocities he endured led to his survival and that of other prisoners.

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

POV, Writing Style & Atmosphere

The author made use of the third-person omniscient POV allowing the readers to identify with the protagonist through his backstory and discourses.  It was kind of surprising that the novel was an easy read compared with other historical fiction novels that reveal beautiful exposition and flowery narration. Yet, Morris’ descriptive writing helped made the characters interesting and identifiable owing to the novel’s intriguing plot.  The novel’s atmosphere is grim and sad but historically authentic.

As much as there are riveting and suspenseful scenes in the novel, I felt the story didn’t eventually get the finale it had been building towards all the way.  Lale Sokolov’s story was truly sad and heart-wrenching but worthy of admiration. However, I didn’t encounter moments of profound intensity and emotion as I normally would have after reading historical fiction novels like Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” and Amor Towles “A Gentleman in Moscow”.  These novels were written beautifully using detailed imagery and lyrical description. The narrative of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” may be engaging as one would not find it hard to read yet, I found myself yearning for more embellished writing that can add more depth to the novel’s foreboding atmosphere.  The writing is bland for my taste and the anticipation was not granted justice in the end. The ending felt too abrupt despite the interwoven storylines. The extenuating feature of the novel appears to be the fate of both Lale and Gita who found love amidst their situation but even the much-anticipated denouement fell short of expectations.  

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” explored the harrowing events during the World War II genocide of the European Jews from the point of view of one surviving prisoner.  It delved into the opposite extremes of human behavior: good vs evil. The readers are given yet another angle of what transpired during the Holocaust, this time giving emphasis to a love story that seems inappropriate at a time like this. Notwithstanding the atrocities of the German soldiers and the seemingly hopeless morality of the prisoners, the book embodies how humans are willed to survive by simply realizing an internal purpose that seeks to preserve others.  How one’s willingness to survive is in itself a form of defiance against the cruelty of the Germans. Morris has also given the readers a picture of how small acts of kindness and selflessness could save lives. Lale’s impulse to help others by providing extra food rations while inspiring optimism to others became the life and soul of this book.  

Overall, despite flaws in the writing,  this is an inspiring novel that seeks to restore faith in humanity.  It sends a clear message of hope and encouragement in difficult times.  This also serves as an unequivocal proof that Holocaust stories will continue to be relevant as no single account is enough to remind us of the horrific tragedies of the Holocaust that brought out conflicting human emotions, adverse behaviors, and heroic acts of sacrifice. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Author: Heather Morris

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 288 pages

Publisher: Harper (September 4, 2018)

ISBN-10: 006287067X

ISBN-13: 978-0062870674