A Long Petal of the Sea
By Isabelle Allende
Read Jan 2021
The title of the New York Times Review of this book is perfect: Pablo Neruda Saved Thousands of War Refugees. Isabel Allende Imagines Two of Them. Allende has written a wonderful and powerful example of historical fiction: image characters that are living through the period and events the author wishes to explore; engage the reader in the lives of the characters; engage the reader in wondering more about the period and events described. Allende hits the mark on all of these.
The story starts in Spain near the end of the Spanish Civil War shortly before Franco wins. Victor Dalmau, a medic, escapes to France over the Pyrennes with the patients he is serving. He finds himself in a concentration camp built by the French for fleeing Spanish refugees. Roser, a piano student of Victor’s father and whom the family takes in during the war, also lands in this concentration camp with her newborn son whose father, Guillium, has been killed in the civil war and who is Victor’s brother.
Pablo Neruda, a poet and Chilean diplomat in France, manages to convince his government to accept 2000 refugees. He outfits a cargo ship, selects the refugees per Chile’s specifications, and gets the refugees to Chile. Victor can be accepted, but only if he is married. He convinces Roser to enter a platonic marriage with him to save Guillium’s child and they become two of the 2000 refugees Chile accepts.
The book slowly takes us through this buildup, across the ocean to Chile, and through Victor and Roser’s complicated life together as Victor becomes a renowned cardiologist and Roser becomes an accomplished artist. Their lives are again disrupted as Augusto Pinochet ‘s coup drives them into exile in Venezuela. They eventually face a decision whether to stay in Venezuela, repatriate to Spain, or return to Chile.
While the reader expands their awareness of the Spanish Civil War, the real but unfamiliar rescue of 2000 Spanish refugees made possible by a poet/diplomat, and the impact of the rule of Franco in Spain and the coup and reign of Pinochet in Chile, the reader is treated to a wonderful story of the lives of two people and their loves. Victor and Roser love their native Spain and eventually realize they have developed a love for their adopted county Chile. They love Roser and Guillium’s son as a biological (for Roser) and adopted (for Victor) son. They love their respective vocations. They love each other, first as brother/sister, then as members of a platonic marriage of necessity, and then as partners in life and marriage. Allende deserves high marks for a rich and well written novel that is an example of excellent historical fiction in this reader’s opinion.