- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

By Isabel Allende
HarperCollins, $26, 304 pages

With intractable fluidity, Isabel Allende's "Portrait in Sepia" generates an undertow. The novel pulls you in, takes you from San Francisco's Chinatown to Chile's rural expanse and navigates there underneath. In narrating her personal and familial history, the character of Aurora del Valle gives a privileged tour, transcending racial barriers and revealing cultures through their conflict with tradition. And even when Aurora is finished telling her tale, her narrative perpetuates itself in your mind, like the waves that resonate in your dreams, after wrestling with the surf's tumult.
Aurora's great-grandfather, Capt. John Sommers, "a robust English seaman," sets the tone for the protagonists of the novel, who take on numerous transatlantic crossings in their many pursuits and exiles. "From him I inherited a certain bent for wandering," Aurora explains.
Aurora traces her genealogy in telling her story, but don't expect a novel in the magical-surrealist mold of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Allende novels, which also follow intersecting family lines. The spiritual and surreal is merely suggested in this one, and fuses gently with the temporal. The scent of the sea of Aurora's maternal Chinese grandfather, Tao Chi'en, accompanies the narrator long after he has died, for example, but he never appears to Aurora after his death, as he likely would in the Latin American magical-surrealist tradition.
The sea-scented grandfather specializes in acupunture and other healing methods in San Francisco's Chinatown. He and his English-Chilean wife, Eliza Sommers, raise Aurora from her birth, in 1880, until she is five. The girl's mother, Lynn Sommers, dies at childbirth and her biological father flees from the responsibility of parenthood.
"While inside that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to open a way out to me, the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of shouted dialects, its inexhaustible swarms of human bees hurrying back and forth," Aurora tells us in the beginning of her narrative.
As the motions of Chinatown rage in full force outside the wood house, inside Aurora is within but never confined to the quarter. Just one-fourth Chinese, she is free to integrate into the then racially intolerant world of the whites. After Tao Chi'en becomes a casualty of Chinatown's brutality, Aurora does just that. Eliza, faced with her pledge to take her husband's body back to Hong Kong for burial, leaves Aurora in the permanent care of her paternal grandmother, the legendary Paulina del Valle. But even after Paulina keeps Aurora's Chinese origins a secret for decades, the unwavering tenderness of Tao Chi'en, and her traumatic memories of his death, persistently haunt Aurora, even when she moves a continent away from the Chinese quarter of her birth.
With this adoption, Aurora enters Paulina's world of compulsive opulence, matriachal power and dysfunction. Paulina's three sons have already descended into lives of petty greed and vice, and Paulina's tempestuous yet obliging nature hardly provides a structured upbringing for Aurora. And yet Aurora is deeply loved by Paulina, and her grandmother makes the weighty sacrifice of leaving San Francisco for the much more provincial Santiago, Chile, in order to give Aurora a clean racial slate in a time of crippling prejudice. In Santiago, Aurora is reared and eventually marries. But unlike the mythological love of her grandparents Tao Chi'en and Eliza, Aurora is ushered into a passionless union of perfunctory intimacy and unbridgeable alienation.
"The rain carried off the flowers and leaves, the house with its heavy furniture and large empty spaces closed itself to the outdoors, and we were trapped in a strange domestic captivity. We wandered through rooms lighted with candles, avoiding icy currents of air; the furniture creaked with a widow's moan, and you could hear the furtive little footsteps of mice going about their diligent tasks … The servants lighted braziers and chimneys, the maids brought us hot water bottles, blankets, and cups of steaming chocolate, but there was no way to trick the long winter. It was then that I succumbed to loneliness."
Still, Aurora finds solace in the landscape of her new home and sets out on horseback as often as weather permits. "The trails ended at the sawmill, and beyond that I had to pick my way through thick growth, trusting the instinct of my mare, whose hooves sank in the oil-colored mud, thick and fragrant as vegetal blood. Light filtered through the immense cupola of trees in bright, oblique rays, but there were glacial zones where pumas lay in wait, spying on me with eyes like flames." The rough elements of this terrain almost take Aurora's life, but they also provide her with an opportunity to definitely escape her "domestic captivity."
With this escape, there is hope. And given Aurora's lineage, there is the exceptional possibility. Aurora's tale seems to be only beginning, and the reader is rudely awakened to its end, after being pulled in so inexorably. "Portrait in Sepia" is purportedly the third book in Mrs. Allende's informal trilogy, but one can only hope this isn't so.

Ximena Ortiz is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide