As the title suggests, this book is the story of Inés. It starts with her life in Spain as a poor seamstress and wife, follows her through Peru and finally to Chile as a mistress then wife of the governor. Written mostly in the style of a woman writing her memoirs for her daughter to read, this writing has a distinctly soporific feel. Even in moments where you are reading about horrific battles, the heartbreak and pain of Inés, or extreme tragedies and hardships there is no real sense of terror or vicarious pain.
It is a unique experience as a fiction reader to almost dispassionately experience the life of a woman who has seen so much death and struggle. It is almost like, as Inés is telling this in her old age, that veil of a lifetime has allowed her to tell her own story without reliving it. Inés recognizes she felt the emotions and describes them vividly, but she does not tell them as if they are new and fresh. It is very much like reading a non-fiction memoir or auto-biography. The suspense is not there as you know the main character, so to speak, has survived the events.
Isabel Allende is a masterful crafter of words. She has a distinctive and elegant way of creating descriptive and vivid sentences. Throughout the book, all 313 pages, the tenor and tone of her writing are constant. Her choice of words is neither overly simplistic nor complicated. At times I did go to the dictionary to determine the exact meaning of words, but that was mostly for my own curiosity rather than an inability to decipher their meaning in the context.
Allende uses a mélange of Spanish and native words through the book, keeping true to the meaning when there is no English equivalent. The use of titles and words in these languages helps to establish the culture of the time, neither truly Spanish or Quecha but with independent elements of each that had not truly blended yet. This struggle to simultaneously blend and conquer cultures is an ambiguous theme of the book. The use of the language barriers subtly weaves this theme throughout the book.
The timeline of the book is somewhat fluid. Particularly at the beginning there is a mix of events and foreshadowing of people to appear, or disappear as the case may be. After about 70 pages the timeline becomes more linear and easier to follow. Inés tells the main portion of the story, the arduous journey from Peru to Chile, in a sequential manner except for commentary from her old age. In deference to space, there are many years of the story that are condensed and summarized in order to get to more pivotal points in her life. These portions, still using the same rhythm as the detailed portions, do not feel rushed or incomplete. Rather they help illustrate that though Inés lead an intensely adventurous and memorable life, she was human as any other and her life was sometimes boring or routine.
This book is a must read. From the writing style to the subject matter to the organization this book hits all the right notes with a reader. This book alone has made me a fan of the author and I am very much looking forward to reading more of her works. In fact, I have already requested another from my local library.
Love and adventure,