Isabel Allende on Island beneath the Sea

Chilean novelist Isabel Allende will be at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, Maine, on Wednesday, May 5 for a sold-out appearance to discuss her novel about Haiti, Island beneath the Sea, which goes on sale April 27. [See our earlier post on the original Spanish version at Another Look at Caribbean Slavery: Isabel Allende’s La isla bajo el mar].  She sat down with Deborah Mcdermott of for an interview. Here are some excerpts.

Author Isabel Allende could not have known that on one terrible day in January this year, an earthquake would shake the island nation of Haiti to its foundation, leaving devastation and death in its wake and for a brief moment in time focusing the world’s attention on its plight.

It is nonetheless prescient that at a time when we are riveted by this modern-day tale, Allende publishes a novel that gives us a deeper understanding of Haiti’s roots as, first, a country of wealthy French landowners and then as the first black-led republic in the world.

Like so many of Allende’s work, “Island Beneath the Sea” is at once intensely personal and contextually political. While it tells a story of half a dozen people who live in Haiti and later Cuba and French-controlled New Orleans in the twilight of the 18th century, the sense of place is just as important. Allende weaves real and fictional characters into a rich tapestry that gives the reader a complete sense of this important time in history.

The novel spans the years 1770 to 1810, beginning at a time when Haiti was the richest French colony in the New World because of the immense profits from the sugar, coffee and indigo industries. It continues through a slave rebellion that resulted in the banishment of whites. And it ends in New Orleans on the brink of the agreement between Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte that would result in the Louisiana Purchase.

“I stumbled upon the Haitian revolution. I didn’t have an idea of what had happened there before I started my research. This is the only slave revolt in the world that had succeeded,” she said. “These are people who came from different places in Africa. They didn’t share language. All they had in common were drums, a desire to be free and voodoo. And they defeated Napoleon’s army. Remarkable.”

Allende said she actually backed into the novel, the nexus of which occurred while she visited New Orleans to conduct research for her dark and sensual book, “Zorro.”

“I was fascinated by the French flavor. When I was researching why, I found that in 1800, 10,000 white refugees from Haiti had to get out in a matter of days because of the slave revolt. They moved there with their white families and their families of color, of course.”

What she discovered, when she began to explore pre-revolutionary Haiti, is a system of slaveholding even worse — if slavery can be quantified — than that of the United States. As we learn, many Africans came to the Caribbean first and stayed, bought at extremely cheap prices because a new batch came in constantly to replace the sick or dead who were worked to exhaustion. They were more expensive and thus more cared for in America.

She also discovered a rigid society, composed of petits blancs (poor whites), grands blancs (rich whites), affranchis (free people of color) and, at the bottom, slaves. While she draws characters representing all strata, it’s clearly the slaves whom she finds compelling — slaves from so many different regions of Africa who learn to communicate through a religion born and formed in Haiti, voodoo.

“Voodoo was an extraordinarily powerful thing, and how they could fight against the cannons of the whites,” she said. “They get in touch with loas, like Christian saints, who act as intermediaries. In ceremonies, they go into a trance. The practitioner becomes the loas and acquires the power of loas.

“These slaves would go into battle with the idea that they were invincible. For them, the spirits of the deal, the souls, had gone to the island beneath the sea, to paradise in Africa. Under the sea, because they came by the sea. They would die and it didn’t matter because the soul survived. And when they were summoned to war, they all came back. For each man, there were 10,000 souls fighting for them.”

Early reviews

Early reviews of the novel have not been extremely positive. Marlon James, writing for Publishers Weekly had this to say:

Of the many pitfalls lurking for the historical novel, the most dangerous is history itself. The best writers either warp it for selfish purposes (Gore Vidal), dig for the untold, interior history (Toni Morrison), or both (Jeannette Winterson). Allende, four years after Ines of My Soul, returns with another historical novel, one that soaks up so much past life that there is nowhere left to go but where countless have been. Opening in Saint Domingue a few years before the Haitian revolution would tear it apart, the story has at its center Zarité, a mulatto whose extraordinary life takes her from that blood-soaked island to dangerous and freewheeling New Orleans; from rural slave life to urban Creole life and a different kind of cruelty and adventure. Yet even in the new city, Zarité can’t quite free herself from the island, and the people alive and dead that have followed her.Zarité’s passages are striking. More than merely lyrical, they map around rhythms and spirits, making her as much conduit as storyteller. One wishes there was more of her because, unlike Allende, Zarité is under no mission to show us how much she knows. Every instance, a brush with a faith healer, for example, is an opportunity for Allende to showcase what she has learned about voodoo, medicine, European and Caribbean history, Napoleon, the Jamaican slave Boukman, and the legendary Mackandal, a runaway slave and master of black magic who has appeared in several novels including Alejo Carpentier’s Kingdom of This World. The effect of such display of research is a novel that is as inert as a history textbook, much like, oddly enough John Updike’s Terrorist, a novel that revealed an author who studied a voluminous amount of facts without learning a single truth.Slavery as a subject in fiction is still a high-wire act, but one expects more from Allende. Too often she forgoes the restraint and empathy essential for such a topic and plunges into a heavy breathing prose reminiscent of the Falconhurst novels of the 1970s, but without the guilty pleasure of sexual taboo. Sex, overwritten and undercooked, is where opulent hips slithered like a knowing snake until she impaled herself upon his rock-hard member with a deep sigh of joy. Even the references to African spirituality seem skin-deep and perfunctory, revealing yet another writer too entranced by the myth of black cultural primitivism to see the brainpower behind it. With Ines of My Soul one had the sense that the author was trying to structure a story around facts, dates, incidents, and real people. Here it is the reverse, resulting in a book one second-guesses at every turn. Of course there will be a forbidden love. Betrayal. Incest. Heartbreak. Insanity. Violence. And in the end the island in the novel’s title remains legend. Fittingly so, because to reach the Island Beneath the Sea, one would have had to dive deep. Allende barely skims the surface.

For the full interview go to

3 thoughts on “Isabel Allende on Island beneath the Sea

  1. After four liesurely days of reading, I finished I.A.’s wonderful new book, “Island Beneath the Sea.” Like all of her books, I can’t put them down until I finish them. While reading the book, I would have loved to have referred to a glossary of terms and names the author used pertaining to the times she writes about in Haiti and New Orleans . Her references made me jot terms and names down that I want to research further. I remember her saying in her interview with Diane Rehm that she researced material for her new work for four years.

  2. Voodoo was not born in Haiti!!! It was born in Africa many centuries before the Europeans even discovered America. Please people research your subject before writing about it!

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