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Dreams Of Freedom In Allende's 'Island'

Ever since her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits became a surprise international blockbuster, Isabel Allende has been that rarest of people: a foreign-language author whose books sell well in the United States. She's not the only one, of course -- most recently, novelists like the late Stieg Larsson have found success in America -- but for the most part, U.S. best-seller lists aren't exactly crowded with translated literature.

Allende's appeal hasn't just been her fascinating biography -- she grew up in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Lebanon, and was the cousin of deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende -- but also her lyrical, enchanting narrative style, at times a kind of Day-Glo version of magical realism. Her prose isn't for everyone; she doesn't shy away from the florid and the dramatic. But readers who have been entranced by her considerable storyteller's charm will find a lot to admire in Island Beneath the Sea, her latest novel.

Like The House of Spirits and her underrated Ines of My Soul, Island Beneath the Sea is a sprawling, multifaceted historical epic. The novel follows a young woman born into slavery, Tete, and her master, Toulouse Valmorain, through two countries, over several years. Valmorain, a young Frenchman who has moved to Haiti to manage his father's sugar plantation, first buys Tete in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), where she was born to an African woman and one of her white enslavers. Valmorain uses Tete for sex; she eventually gives birth to his daughter, and the two develop a complicated, somewhat troubled relationship. After the beginning of the slave revolts that would lead to the Haitian Revolution, Valmorain and Tete move to New Orleans; he plans to get a new plantation, and she pines for the freedom her master has promised her.

Island Beneath the Sea isn't Allende's greatest work, but she handles a difficult issue with, for the most part, considerable restraint and grace. Allende isn't, and never has been, a terribly subtle writer -- her plots are typically markedly dramatic, and her characters often wear their motivations and emotions on their sleeves. But she's a little more reined in than usual here, despite a few ornate phrasings that might have lost something in translation ("Meanwhile, the French Revolution had hit the colony like the slash of a dragon's tail ... ").

While Allende has always been comfortable chronicling grand passion and deep love, she's at her best here when she's angry -- her descriptions of the treatment of Valmorain's slaves, particularly the sexual assault of Tete, are shocking. At its best, Island Beneath the Sea is elegant, moving and infused with a real sense of loss: "Many years have gone by and blood keeps running, soaking the soul of Haiti," Tete writes, "but I am not there to weep."

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.