The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits
Title: The House of the Spirits
Author: Isabel Allende (translated by Magda Bogin)
Publication date: 1982
Country/culture: South America (Chile)


For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)

What’s it about?The House of the Spirits

The novel tells a tale spanning four generations of a family, focusing in particular on the women. Their intertwining personal narratives are set against the background of political upheavals in an unnamed South American country – events from years back are seen to have vital repercussions in the future – and we are led to muse on the cyclical nature of life, love and hate.

What did I find out?

I’d been aware of the genre ‘magical realism’ for some time, but had never really seriously appreciated the difference between it and ‘straight’ fantasy. In all honesty I think I’d completely misunderstood it, assuming it to encompass any story set in the real world that has a fantasy element. By this definition, something like Harry Potter would be magical realism – but I’ve now learned that this isn’t the case.

Magical realism is at play when the magical elements of a story are accepted as a natural part of the world as experienced by all the characters in the novel. So Harry Potter doesn’t fit the bill, as the magical world of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic is secret: hidden from Muggles and known only to those select few who are inducted into it. This is in contrast to The House of the Spirits, where Clara’s clairvoyant abilities are presented merely as one of her character traits, rather than a strange mystery to be solved. An oddity, perhaps, but no more than that.

I really should have got to grips with this terminology a year ago, when I was reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which also falls under the heading of magical realism: man turns into beetle; family are more concerned that he’s not pulling his weight around the house than how he turned into a beetle in the first place. Better late than never, I guess.

My own novel may or may not turn out to fall into the category of magical realism – I haven’t quite finalised the world building, and am currently unsure how ‘unusual’ magic will turn out to be in the human side of my world. Something else to add to the creative to-do list!

What do I now see differently?

I’ll admit that, although I enjoyed this novel, I found it a little harder going than Lagoon, my first book of the year. I suspect that this may be down to the nature of the storytelling, in that the tale spans several generations of a family, and so the usual ‘what happens next?!’ plot hooks didn’t function in quite the same way. There are frequent hints that events will have repercussions down the line, but it could be 100 pages before we discover what form that resolution will actually take.

This meant that I experienced a lot of what might be termed ‘delayed gratification’: letting events wash over me rather than champing at the bit to get to the next page (or even chapter) to find out how they play out. However, I was relieved to find that this didn’t stop me from absorbing myself in the story; I merely had to take it at a slower pace and appreciate all the seemingly unconnected details presented to me in the interim, knowing that they were building up to a much greater picture than I could see at the time.

I suspect that my own work won’t follow this model; I want to tell a much faster paced story (indeed my main fear is that it will end up being too short). However, it is hugely helpful to be introduced to different styles of writing, if only so that I can become clearer on my own tastes and more defined in my plans.

How will this inspire my writing?

The four women from the different generations of the Del Valle and Trueba families all possess names that have the same (or a similar) meaning: Nívea, Clara, Blanca and Alba. This had the effect of giving them a special connection, and reminded me of several characters I will be developing, to some extent in my first novel, but mostly in my second.

The characters in question are witches, and it’s common for witches to congregate in groups of three (not four, admittedly – but then Nívea doesn’t play as large a role in the book as the others). Specifically, the individuals in such a group would traditionally mirror the three ‘faces’ of the Triple Goddess: maiden, mother and crone. The relationship between the women in The House of the Spirits (daughter, mother and grandmother) reminded me of this connection – and I’ve now realised that (a) I need to do a lot more research around the Goddess, to see how far I want to incorporate this aspect of witchery into my work, and (b) I need to give serious thought to the naming of my characters. In magic, knowing the true name of a thing (or person) gives you a measure of power over them, and as magic will feature strongly in my books, this is something I can’t afford to ignore.

At the moment the three witches aren’t planned to appear until book 2, so I may have some time to read up about this – but I still need to have my world building in place before the events of book 1 kick off, so perhaps I need to get going sooner rather than later!

A musical interlude

I’m not sure that the musicality of this track quite conveys the vibe of the novel, but the lyrics (throughout the song, not just in the title) seemed perfect, so I’m running with it. It’s the Police: Spirits in the Material World.