Barrabás came to us by the sea

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Surprise! This blog post is NOT about a Russian novel! Maybe I’ll start with how I came to put a hold on my quest to read all the Russian classic novels. I mentioned many, many moons ago that I was spending the 23rd year of my life exploring NYC by reading novels on the trains and teaching middle school science classes. Fast-forward nearly five years: I am finishing up my last few months of medical school (hence, why I’ve suddenly started updating my blog after so many years!). I spent the majority of my fourth year working on applications for residency programs, which meant not only a lot of traveling for interviews, but also having many opportunities to discuss books with people I met along the road – including my interviewers. When I mentioned to one of my interviewers that the last book I had read was by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she asked whether I had ever read The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende, an author who (like Marquez) uses predominantly magical realism themes in this novel. Although I immediately jotted down the name of the book in my black portfolio so as not to forget, the excitement/stress of the application process got the better of me, and I did end up forgetting it. However, a few months later, while running my fingers along used-book shelves at the bookstore, I coincidentally ran into the only copy of this book there. Without thinking twice, I grabbed it, excited to have woken up so lucky that morning.

Having really enjoyed several of Marquez’s works in the past, I was excited to enter another magical realm with this book. What I did not expect was to be pulled into a page-turner. The general plot focuses on several generations of the del Valle family, their familial and romantic relationships, the turbid political environment they live in, and the unspeakable secrets they hide from one another (similar to those of the Buendia family of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). However, Allende begins the story with magical elements right from the first page with an introduction to Clara, the family clairvoyant, and Rosa, the unearthly beautiful (mermaid-like) older sister. From there, she pulls in her readers with further mystical (or odd?) events such as an uncle with an exceptional adventurous spirit and an abnormally large pet dog, Barrabás. These are just a few of the initial oddities the readers face. The rest of the book addresses ghosts, mummies, and other paranormal activity, but the natural and effortless incorporation of these elements into the story (as if the abnormal is expected or easily accepted) distinguishes the story as belonging to the magical realism genre rather than horror or supernatural fiction.

As I mentioned, the story deals mainly with the familial dynamics of several generations. There are themes of love, loyalty, betrayal, justice, feminism, revenge, political resistance, punishment… I could list at least ten more. Because this is a longer novel, Allende explores all of these themes eloquently. Her writing is engaging, poetic, and flows effortlessly. In fact, it has helped me create such a vivid visual of the settings and characters that I am sure I will keep these mental snapshots for years to come (see my first post!!). In order to express these ideas effectively, she does use strong (and even a bit graphic) descriptions. Some of the treatments of her heroines were painful and upsetting to read, and I wondered how difficult it must have been for an author to put her leading characters in those situations. But I understood the importance and necessity of it in the end.

Before I wrap up, I will mention that the name of this post is the first half of the first sentence of the novel. Although it has contextual significance, I simply loved the way in which the words just seemed to complement each other so perfectly, and it is the first phrase to pop into my mind when I think of the prose itself. I realize I could keep talking about how much I enjoyed this book, but I’ll leave this post short(ish). I hope that it at least gives you an idea of what the book is about and has gotten you curious enough to jot its name down on a corner of the nearest sheet of paper.

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