Books

Isabel Allende
The Soul of a Woman

I had my blood pressure taken recently, something that happens more frequently when you reach middle age. I normally have low blood pressure – to the extent that I sometimes have problems with light-headedness – so my GP was surprised by a reading of 120/90. She took two more measurements to be sure. Each time it went higher.

I confided that, before coming into her office, I had been reading about our attorney-general’s repudiation of a rape allegation brought against him by a woman who subsequently committed suicide. My GP said that we’d ignore the readings; we’d do a fresh exam next time.

Isabel Allende’s The Soul of a Woman spends some time considering the body’s failings in relation to ageing, but this memoir is mostly focused on and informed by rage about the patriarchy – a rage sparked when Allende’s mother was abandoned by her husband. Divorce not being allowed in Chile at the time, Allende’s father agreed to an annulment on the proviso that he never have anything to do with his three small children. Her brothers were allowed to vent their anger, but when Allende did the same thing, her mother consulted doctors to find out what was wrong with her daughter, suspecting colic or a tapeworm. Allende retrospectively diagnoses herself as an early bloomer: “I was a feminist in kindergarten.”

At one point, Allende describes The Soul of a Woman as “an informal chat”, and certainly the book has a meandering structure, which sometimes quotes poems and in which Allende’s storytelling skills – the source of this book’s charm – are on full display. Allende’s patriarchal stepfather, in old age, is cared for by a “team of kind women … as if he were a greenhouse orchid”. Wit, as here, frequently enlivens the narrative. Reflecting on an experience of online dating, following her divorce from her second husband, Allende observes – in appealing deadpan style – how in advertisements the “euphemism for horny is ‘spontaneous’ ”. Allende also relates the story of how she met her third husband, who wrote her a fan letter. While conceding that it would be “more convenient to be bisexual or lesbian because women my age are more interesting and age better than men”, she proclaims herself “fatally heterosexual”. Allende’s candour stretches to revealing a dramatic plan to end her life before old age takes away her independence. The anecdote ends with a punchline:

“I had an agreement with a male friend … to commit suicide together when we deemed it appropriate. He was going to fly his plane – a tin mosquito – toward the horizon until we had no more fuel and then we would plunge into the Pacific Ocean, a clean ending that would spare our families the cost of two funerals. Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, my friend’s pilot license expired and he could not renew it.”

However, Allende is also often straight-talking, perhaps in a way that may prove surprising to those who view her as a writer of melodrama. She describes feminism as “the most important revolution of the 20th century”. She puts paid to the fallacy that “strong” women mean a society is matriarchal, when men continue to “control political and economic power”. She argues that human rights are in fact only men’s rights: “If a man is beaten and deprived of his freedom, it’s called torture. When a woman endures the same, it’s called domestic violence and is still considered a private matter in most of the world.” Allende provides statistics about child brides, rapes and war crimes, honour killings and female slavery.

The book’s mix of quirky stories and historical facts resonates with the genre of magical realism, with which Allende’s name is associated and which is often unfairly maligned, particularly when practised by women writers. The House of the Spirits, perhaps Allende’s most famous novel, may begin as a story involving clairvoyance and other magical happenings, but it ends with the novel’s young female protagonist fighting against a violent junta. The novel is based on the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende, Isabel’s uncle, in 1973. The coup forced Allende’s family into exile. Intriguingly, while Allende refers to the horrors of Chile’s past, she never mentions her uncle.

Allende’s reputation, as she herself admits, was forged on the back of the Latin American literary “boom”, which she describes as “a male phenomenon”. She reveals how a male colleague once refused to acknowledge her as a writer, calling her instead a “typist”. Allende has since become world-famous, though her reputation has suffered from association with “women’s genres”. However, Allende speaks humorously of her failings rather than successes as a romance writer: “I try to imagine a lover that my heterosexual female readers would like but that compendium of masculine virtues is beyond my reach.” Indeed, attesting to Allende’s commitment to reality over sentimentality, she describes the romance industry as one that “competes with narco trafficking in creating addiction”.

Allende saves her rage, though, for male violence, repeating Kavita Ramdas’s call to demilitarise the world, arguing that this “goal can only be achieved by women, because we are not seduced by the male attraction to weapons and we are the ones who most suffer the impact of a culture that exalts violence”. Allende’s claim that women “bet on life, not on extermination” because they give birth may smack of biological determinism, and there’s a lot in this book that seems old-fashioned – such as Allende’s insistence that a feminist can still be sexy – but this is still, alas, very much a book for our times.

For all the depressing statistics and anecdotes, Allende provides an equal number of stories of women who are making a difference, so that the effect of this memoir is overwhelmingly motivating and uplifting. If I returned to the GP, my blood pressure would probably be lower.

Maria Takolander

Bloomsbury, 192pp, $22.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Isabel Allende, The Soul of a Woman".

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Reviewer: Maria Takolander