50 Books By Authors of Color: Book 7
Title: Island Beneath the Sea
Author: Isabel Allende
I know I promised that my next reviewed book would be Joe Wesley Cooper’s Don’t Erase Your Dreams but I’m still digesting that book and trying to figure out how to put into words the emotional response that I had. I promise I’ll have it posted by next week.
What happens when you cross an Edgwidge Danticat book with a V.C. Andrews book? You get Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende. Don’t take that as a dig against Allende (or Danticat or even Andrews), I honestly mean both comparisons in the best of ways. Island Beneath the Sea starts out following Toulouse Valmorain, a young man from France who has come to visit his father and his family plantation on the island of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) several years before the Haitian revolution. Shortly after his arrival Toulouse’s father dies and he takes over the family plantation. Valmorain’s desire to obtain wealth and to produce an heir leads us to our main character: Zarite. Zarite, also known as Tété is not Valmorain’s wife; no she is the personal slave of his sick wife Eugenia. Zarite is a “mulatta” the daughter of a slave woman from Guinea and one of the whites from aboard the slave ship. Her mother commits suicide shortly after her child’s birth (after several attempts to kill Zarite in order to keep the child from entering a life of bondage) and her white father is never revealed.
Zarite is filled with the desire for freedom, running away several times as a child. It is the one thing that remains a constant desire in her life. At the age of eleven, Valmorain rapes Zarite for the first time, and continues to force himself on her for years. After Eugenia falls ill from a combination of opium use, laudanum and mental illness after the birth of Eugenia and Valmorain’s son Maurice, Zarite feels obligated to stay to care for the child. Though she treats Maurice as though he were her own son, Valmorain continues to force himself upon Zarite, fathering a child, Rosette, who she raises alongside Maurice.
Even though Zarite has a chance at love and passion with another slave, Zarite chooses again and again to sacrifice herself for Maurice and Rosette, knowing that Valmorain is her only real chance at safety. Valmorain’s cruelty knows no bounds, after Zarite saves his life, the life of the children as well as her own he writes a paper giving her freedom, but fails to have it certified by a judge and continues to use it to keep Zarite near him. Forcing her to leave the Island during the slave rebellion and following revolution, and relocate first to Cuba and later to Louisiana and continue her bondage there. Valmorain’s abuses of Zarite grows until with the help of a priest, Eugenia’s brother Santos, as well as a doctor that she knew back in Saint Domingue she manages to force his hand and get freedom not only for herself, but for Rosette as well. Not before the most unfortunate thing happens. Rosette and Maurice fall in love. Knowing full well that they are siblings (though Valmorain refuses to acknowledge Rosette) and that marriage between the two of them is illegal because she is a quadroon (one fourth black, three fourths white) and he is white. Valmorain objects to the union, more so because Rosette is a woman of color than because Rosette is his biological sibling. Gross. Valmorain ends up disowning Maurice because of his love for Rosette and the story continues from there, but I don’t want to spoil how it ends.
Like Danticat Allende paints both a depressing and beautiful view of Haiti/Saint Domingue. Her characters are able to find peace and love in others regardless of their hard burdens. Like Andrews, there’s just enough of a creepy power dichotomy and incest that it makes you feel uncomfortable (though admittedly, tame comparatively speaking). I wanted to like this book, I love Allende as an author (one of my favorite books is The House of Spirits, but this book to me came across as her needing to prove that she did her research. Historically accurate (from what I know of the Haitian revolution and the United States purchase of the Louisiana territory) but while the story was compelling I found myself picking up other books while reading this and not feeling the need to transfer it to my iPod.
Narration Review: Flawless! It was read by S. Epathra Merkerson, of Law & Order fame, who I think did an excellent job narrating the book which contained a lot of French and Creole words. Merkerson did an amazing job of capturing the emotions of Zarite and others as well as vocally relating the complexity of characters.
Honestly I just posted this because she’s so damn fierce.
Overall rating: 2/5 – I get it, you did your research, but I feel like an excellent plot was unnecessarily lengthened for this.