Inveterate storyteller Isabel Allende’s “Violeta” resembles her previous novel “A Long Petal of the Sea” in recounting the main character’s long life against a background of turbulent social and political change in Chile.
Violeta writes towards the end, “I was born in 1920, during the influenza pandemic, and I’m going to die in 2020, during the outbreak of coronavirus”. A spoilt child in a prosperous family, Violeta is “sorted out” by her governess Miss Taylor, a young Catholic woman from Ireland, one of the first in a series of insufficiently developed and not always totally convincing characters. When her father’s rash approach to financing his businesses reduces him to bankruptcy and suicide, his family has to decamp to a remote rural area to avoid the shame, and make ends meet. The impoverished lives of the local people fail to awaken Violeta’s social conscience at this stage. Instead, she grows up to demonstrate a shrewder business sense than her father, and forsakes a decent but dull husband to run off with Julian Bravo, a charismatic pilot, who proves to be a rogue. And so she is caught up in a personal family drama while Chile moves from a Socialist experiment dubbed Communist, to a vicious fascist dictatorship designed to repress it.
Although written in conventional chapters, the novel purports to be in the form of a letter which Violeta writes to a younger man called Camilo, whose identity is not revealed until near the end. This device proves the novel’s main flaw, in that the meandering recollections lead to “telling” rather than “showing”, and past events are stripped of their dramatic tensions. Writing in the first person limits Violeta’s ability to portray scenes where she was not present, so descriptions of scenes, emotions, or reported conversations do not ring true and fail to grip or move us as they could.
I am not sure whether it is Isabel Allende’s intention, but for much of the novel, Violeta reveals herself to be a self-centred character, who continually exploits others for her own ends. There always seems to be some obliging woman around to perform the chores she dislikes. Although she grows to despise him, Violeta relies on Julian Bravo’s dubious connections to get their son out of the clutches of the dictatorship, but goes on to engineer his downfall, trading on the knowledge that he will never suspect her of this. Describing her business success to Camilo, she casually mentions profiteering from those forced to flee the regime, by purchasing their properties cheaply in order to sell them for much more later. It takes the proof of the regime’s murder of someone she loves to convert her, late in life, to spending her wealth on good causes.
Many readers will probably accept the novel’s rambling structure, and it may serve to raise awareness of Chile, a beautiful yet troubled land. Although the subject matter is potentially interesting, a tighter focus on fewer strands and characters would have made for a more satisfying read.