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BOOK REVIEW / Death and dancing sugar bowls

Isabel Allende's therapeutic stories give magical realism a human face. By E Jane Dickson; Paula by Isabel Allende HarperCollins, pounds 14.99
In 1991, Isabel Allende's 28-year-old daughter fell into a coma. Waiting for Paula to wake, Allende sat at her bedside and wrote. Paula is not so much a mother's last letter to her daughter as a desperate and dogged attempt at dialogue with an insensible child. Partly autobiography, partly a form of self-therapy, the book is, overwhelmingly, an account of Allende's agony: "My soul is choking in sand. Sadness is a sterile desert. I don't know how to pray... I plunge into these pages in an irrational attempt to overcome my terror. I think that perhaps if I give form to this devastation I shall be able to help you, and myself, and the meticulous exercise of writing can be our salvation."

Beyond the comforts of sense and structure, however, Allende has an absolute belief in the hermetic power of words. Gathering up family stories from generations back, she pumps them into Paula, almost as if she could transfuse her daughter's blanked consciousness with colour and incident and identity. And even in this most desperate of circumstances, Allende is incapable of telling a bad story. She weaves a social history of Chile, from the beginning of the century to the terror of the Seventies, around the personalities of her highly eccentric family. Allende aficionados will recognise many of these characters from her fiction. Of her maternal grandmother, the real-life model for the telekinetic prodigy, Clara, in The House Of The Spirits, Allende writes: "Everyone says that once she moved a billiard table across a room, but the only thing I ever saw move in her presence was an insignificant sugar bowl that used to skitter erratically across the table at tea-time." For most of us, granny's dancing sugar bowl would be a story to dine out on, but such feats are clearly small potatoes to Allende and her clan. Much more impressive is the story of Great Aunt Teresa, who at the end of her life began to sprout the wings of a saint, and at whose death all the roses in the Parque Japones withered overnight.

Anyone who ever doubted that magic realism is a state of mind - as opposed to a fey and tiresome literary convention - will find a stiff argument in these pages. According to Allende, it is all part of being Chilean. In a country where a sea-quake may lift ships from the ocean and strand them in the middle of a plaza, where plagues of snails are the order of the day, the bets, as far as empirical reasoning go, are off. The true splendour of the Chilean character is revealed more tellingly in Allende's description of Sunday lunch en famille: "seafood appetizers, spicy meat pies, cazuela, a hearty chicken and corn and vegetable dish, or pastel de choclo, a corn souffle over a meat base, a blancmange-filled cake - torta de manjar blanco - wine and fruit, and a gigantic jug of pisco sours, the most lethal of Chilean drinks ... everyone at the table tried to outdo the other in how much they could down, and sometimes, just for the thrill of the challenge, they asked for fried bacon and eggs before the dessert."

Allende writes of her own experience - as a daughter of the intellectual bourgeoisie, a victim of child abuse, a political subversive and as a wife, mother and lover - with a kind of wild candour, as if anything less than the whole truth might be stinting her daughter of a last chance to react. A surrogate Scheherazade, she staves off the end with her endless stories; but when the moment finally comes, and she realises that Paula will not waken, all Allende's heroically sustained narrative, her lovingly prepared plots and surprise inventions explode in an exaltation of grief that is truly terrifying. The massed spiritual forces of Allende, her grandmother and generations of ghosts are, in the end, defeated by the mechanics of blood and bone. When Paula's life support machine is switched off, there are no sprouting wings, no withered roses. The reader feels it as a matter of outrage.