Picks and Pans Review: The House of the Spirits

updated 07/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Isabel Allende

Allende is the niece of Salvador Allende Gossens, the Marxist who was elected President of Chile in 1970 and died in a military coup in 1973. (She fled to Caracas, where she now lives with her husband and two children.) Her novel, by tracing four generations of the Trueba family in an unspecified South American country, also examines the growth and destruction of the country's socialist movement. Allende's writing is so inventive, funny and persuasive that in the process of creating a stimulating political novel she has also created a vivid, absorbing work of art. Her characters are fascinatingly detailed and human; it's hard not to have some compassion even for Esteban Trueba, who starts out as a ruthless land baron and becomes a ruthless right-wing senator in the national government. His relationships with women provide the novel with its cohesiveness. He has a confused detachment from his mother, wild passion for his clairvoyant, imperturbable wife, Clara, and a touching devotion to his leftist granddaughter, Alba. However emotional the scene, Allende loses neither her literary poise nor her sense of humor. In describing young Esteban's rampaging lust, she writes, "When he began to look with concupiscent eyes at the birds in the corral, the children playing naked in the orchard, and even at raw bread dough, he understood that his virility would not be soothed by priestly substitutes." Since part of the story is told in the first person by Esteban and part by other narrators, it is sometimes confusing. But it would be worth putting up with far more discomfort than that in exchange for the chance to enjoy this richly humane novel. It is impossible to resist right from its opening lines:" 'Barrabás came to us by sea,' the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that 50 years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own." (Knopf, $17.95)

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