The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Available for purchase here.

A family patriarch who made his wealth in the private sector, hated by his employees and subordinates, notorious for his vicious temper, an unabashed rapist and known abuser, who turns to Conservative politics in his later years. Oh, and his last name starts with T-R-U.

I’m fully convinced in light of reading this in 2016 that Isabel Allende had psychic powers. Or, more likely, the tendency of history to repeat itself and the archetypical personalities associated with those who have an unbridled lust for power are as unchanging as the path of the Earth around the sun.

Allende’s story is a saga of the rise and fall of the Trueba family in a country that’s totally not Chile, chronicling the trends, movements, and mores of the ever-changing culture of the twentieth century. All the points are hit: two World Wars, the spread of first-wave feminism, communist ideology, a peaceful revolution, the underpinning of the accomplishments of the masses by the wealthy one percent, a military coup, the brutality of the regime. The House of the Spirits would be a grim read if its primary focus weren’t the rich lives of its women characters, both their magical prowess and the more earthly matters which concern them. They are rich in their passions, diverse in their characters, and blissfully faulty, real despite the fantasy that blurs the edges of their world.

The House of the Spirits was born in a letter from Allende to her aged grandfather, and inspired by her own life, twinned with political exile and her friendship with such key figures as Pablo Neruda, of whom the unnamed Poet is a clear expy.

Ideology ebbs and flows, but extremism is a fundamental human flaw, and in the United States is reaching its own tipping point. Every four years our presidential elections are deeply divisive, building on the excess of the preceding one, and here we are, less than a month away from casting our votes, the entire country adhering almost blindly to one candidate or another, turning neighbors into enemies and putting ugly words out into the public where they cannot be shirked or removed in a moment of clarity.

We all like to believe that the events that occupy the final third of Allende’s debut novel cannot happen here, that they do not happen in places like this or countries like ours, but this thought process is shared by everyone who lived before bloody coups and drowned in the aftermath. We ignore precedents set by history at our own peril, and now seems the most prescient time to pick up a copy of The House of the Spirits and learn the lesson crafted so beautifully within its pages.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Available for purchase here.

There’s a thought experiment involving monkeys, a banana, and a ladder that highlights the absurdity of following tradition for tradition’s sake. Taking it literally would be a mistake, but the moral is that we often go through life without examining our behavior, and end up going against our own best interests in the process.

Enter Deshi, a thoroughly unremarkable young man living in northern China whose equally unremarkable older brother (though the jewel of their parents’ eyes) is killed, and in a convoluted way, Deshi is held responsible. His mother sends him to acquire a “ghost bride” for the dearly departed, an old custom wherein a recently deceased young woman is symbolically wed to a late groom so that they will be spiritually whole in the next world.

In his journey south to find an appropriate bride, Deshi fails to find a woman who meets the standards that will exonerate his guilt and redeem him in the eyes of his parents. He finally finds the perfect woman in the form of Lily Chen, who is problematically very much alive.

Lily is the only child of a man who would stifle his daughter under the weight of traditional gender roles, and seizes the opportunity to take the reins of her life by taking the reins of Deshi’s mule and fleeing the oppression of her father’s house. It should be noted that Lily has no idea that Deshi’s idea for her future are even worse than what’s in her past.

Lily is irrepressible and freewheeling. She could easily be interpreted as a manic pixie dream girl, but instead, she represents the possibilities of a society unimpeded by irrelevant conventions, while the parents are the dogmatic adherence to the current social mores. Deshi, poor soul, is strung between them, besotted by Lily and stayed by his own morality, but tempted by the rewards inherent in playing the role of dutiful son. The end isn’t happy, it’s just the best of what can be expected.

As a side note, I am someone moderately obsessed with skull imagery and the art for The Undertaking of Lily Chen is achingly gorgeous.