Isabel Allende was born in Peru and raised in Chile. Her her 2009 novel Island Beneath The Sea, translated from its original Spanish, is the story of the evolution of slavery in Saint-Dominque, modern-day Haiti. Allende, like James Michener, establishes characters so compelling that the reader becomes associated with every aspect of their lives. Like Michener’s book Caribbean , Island Beneath The Sea begins with the saga of the annihilation by the Spaniards of the island’s Arawak Indians followed by the establishment of slavery as the economic driver of the sugar industry throughout the Antilles.
The devastation and human suffering caused by the Spanish is compounded when the French replace Spanish rule by establishing a permanent colony on Saint-Dominque. The story of the great sugar plantations and the abhorrent treatment of the slaves imported from Africa is told through the life of a slave girl, Zarite’, born of an African mother and a white sailor, neither of whom she never knew.
Island Beneath the Sea is a generational saga of the children of mixed black and white blood, that was so prevalent in plantation life. Young girls became the forced lovers of the plantation masters and overseers with offspring by the hundreds bought and sold in the cycle of human bondage. The story of Zarite’s survival is riveting , bringing to the reader an understanding of the plantation slave culture, later imported to the American south. In broad terms, I would classify Island Beneath the Sea as a historical novel.
In the early 1800s with the great slave revolts devastating the island’s plantations, the slave culture of the Caribbean migrated to America. The economic driver expanded to include cotton and rice. The novel captures reality as Zarite, having been transported by circumstance from Saint Dominque ( Haiti) to New Orleans discovers that her emancipation and freedom, even in America, is a glass only half full, as an entire sub culture of mixed race ethnicity evolves and plantation life for the slave does not change.
Our contemporary discourse regarding slavery, heightened by the release of the movie Lincoln, makes this novel even more timely. Throughout its pages lies the heritage of the greatest issue faced by American’s transcending the 19th and 20th centuries.
Isabel Allende is the author of nine novels including Ines of My Soul, Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia., all of which were New York Times best sellers. I am thankful for the introduction to Allende by my daughter much in the same way as I was grateful to a good friend for recommending Anya Seton’s Winthrop Women. You too will not be disappointed!