Allende’s new novel, set in what is now Haiti and New Orleans, focuses on the life of a slave named Zarité. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Carolina De Robertis has her reservations:
Allende is an unabashed romantic, which makes for an engaging read, but also means that characters are sometimes seen through a softened lens. The black women in this book are marvelously strong, which, while admirable, at times glosses over the full brunt of their circumstances.
And while many white characters’ racism and hypocrisy are laid bare, those who support black rights do so with a moral clarity that feels anachronistic. This is not an unflinching, razor-sharp portrait of slavery in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Patrick Chamoiseau or Edward P. Jones.
But her overall assessment is positive: “This is a risky undertaking; however, Allende manages to carry it on the sheer strength of her compassion for the characters.”
At The New Republic, Naomi Daremblum is feeling much less charitable, calling the book “abysmal.” She begins by recognizing Allende’s importance, calling her “the undisputed Grande Dame of the Latin American novel,” and for good reason: “Allende’s not insignificant contribution to Spanish-language letters has been the demand that it finally heed to the Latin female voice. And she has been aided in her mission by a gift for portraying characters in a convincing manner, even when they are fantastical and improbable.” But the praise stops there:
Island Beneath the Sea is . . . an extremely superficial novel that is perennially out of its depth about the subject it purports to be highlighting—the ravages of slavery on both sides of plantation societies. . . . It may be heresy to challenge the literary reputation of Isabel Allende, but reading Island Beneath the Sea one cannot but conclude that some essential inspiration and vitality is now missing from her work.
In Publishers Weekly, novelist Marlon James said that the “effect of [Allende's displays] of research is a novel that is as inert as a history textbook.”
Jessa Crispin wants to make sure that the Bad Sex in Literature Award judges take notice of the novel.
Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
Harper, 464 pp., $26.99