Wordy Review: House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Every now and then I read a book that reinvigorates my interest in reading in general, that exemplifies the written word as the highest form of storytelling and on the darkside of that sentiment are the kind of books that makes me wonder why I read at all when there’s a whole world of gaming, movies, and car doors out there, with which playing, seeing or jamming my fingers inside of would be a better use of my time, time which is a precious resource that’s impossible to get back once spent and anything that wastes time is truly guilty of a crime society is yet to recognise or have designed sufficient punishment for and can you see where this is going yet?

I am, of course, being a touch melodramatic, but after nearly 500 pages of underwhelming uneventfulness I feel I’m entitled to a bit of drama to amuse myself for man cannot live on tequila alone. All I got out of House of the Spirits was the potential name of a liquor store and the most bored I’ve been in this book club thus far. Say what you like about previous books where people eat stillborns, at least it can’t be accused of being the resident dullard, at least Eleven Minutes had the mercy to boring but brief, at least Confederacy of Dunces could appeal to someone who had never heard of comedy before and had recently suffered a stroke, House of the Spirits is just one long march along an uneventful road, a road that occasionally looks like it might have some nice scenery coming up but when you get a little closer is all made of balsawood held together with spit.
To give an early idea of just how I felt about this book I actually wrote most of this review while only about 75% of the way through the story, pressing on only because my commitment to journalistic integrity is what drives all the ladies wild. Now complete, I could have posted that review unedited and am only rewriting it to add more complaints, because I’m a completionist like that.

Anyway, to the review itself, and if you’re wondering what the plot is then spoiler alert there isn’t one, instead House of the Spirits is basically and very long list of births, deaths and marriages as we trudge through three generations of a family living in an unnamed Latin American country.

It took a while to come to realise how useless a book this is because at first I was quite enjoying things. It wasn’t until around about the time the eighth character had been introduced by giving their exact details to their history, personality, aspirations, favourite colour and preferred starting Pokémon that I began to suspect that this might be the kind of book that tends to go on and on, my suspicions confirmed a few pages later when the book continued to go on and on. But plenty of novels ramble on before things truly start happening, you’ve got to get through a few dozen pages of songs and suppers before Tolkien will let you have dragons so I was happy to march through the long roads of character set-up to get to the parts where things actually happen, only to have those established characters give birth to a new generations of character set-ups who would in turn birth characters for the books closing chapters. Is this your only bit House of the Spirits, pulling one character out of another like a babushka doll?

What truly confuses me is the number of times potentially interesting plots arise but get cast aside. A young woman is poisoned but no one ever tries to find her killer, someone murders the beloved family dog but we never find out who or why, two brothers form a love triangle but it’s hardly ever mentioned and just sort of goes away, the youngest daughter is telekinetic so she settles down, has a family and does as little with her powers as possible. Either the author has a crippling allergy to excitement or this book was written in a bizzaro universe where mundane activities are immortalised in song and script and a thrilling afternoon consists of visiting the Museum of Discarded Tax Receipts.

I will say the writing is decent, though if Allende is allergic to excitement then she must go into full anaphylactic shock if she uses the ‘entre’ key more than once a page. We often go entire pages without a paragraph break, filling every inch of paper with block text. Still, that block text forms a realistic world and creates some well filled out characters and while going through the long explanation of why they chose Charmander over Squirtle you actually get to know them as though they were real people, which makes the fact that nothing ever happens all the more irritating. I was totally invested in the life and times of several characters but by the time page 250 rolled around I realised that all this wasn’t a set up for a plot that would happen later but rather the ‘plot’ had been happening the entire time and was just too boring to be noticed. You could argue that this is a story about characters, not events, and that the lineage itself and the lives within it is the novels story arc. You could argue that but then you’d be defending a novel that doesn’t do that particular bit very well. Shirley Jackson pulls the same character-based plot-was-happening-while-you-were-waiting-for-it trick and I really like her books, so don’t try that “it’s not me, it’s you” bit here, book.

Two unusual things do stand out about the novels writing. Firstly an occasional chapter will switch to a first person perspective, usually to the books main male character/serial rapist/general asshole Esteban Trueba, who sometimes recounts the events relative to their occurrence and at other times seems to be recounting those times from years after the fact, which is sort of jarring, similarly there are the times when the first person narration will be unidentified, which is even more jarring. Eventually you discover who this mystery narrator is which opens up some more irritations for all the times when neither of the narrators were present when something happened or somehow manage to explaine another characters personal thoughts and feelings without ever having been told.
Secondly sometimes the third person narration will give away future events, which at first I found engaging but soon became annoying, removing any surprise or drama by basically telling you a characters eventual fate, just in case you began to feel a tinge of excitement and needed to put the book down before you broke out in hives.

In conclusion I struggled to even finish reading this one, both out of a lack of motivation and from the sudden urge to nap it often gave me. Bland and bloated, House of the Spirits gives you detailed interesting characters then stubbornly refuses to do anything with them for more than a few pages and is about as much fun as reading 1 Chronicles 1:34 during a lecture on the history of the paint. I’m going to describe this one as a time thief and natural sleep aid so put me down as not a fan and lets be done because I’m getting the sense I’m wasting my time just talking about it.

Written by B.T. “House of the Irrits” Calloway


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