Monday, August 2, 2010

Review: Inés of My Soul

Inés of My Soul
Written by Isabel Allende
Harper Perennial
352 pages
Reviewed by April D. Boland

Women in history are so often forgotten. Do we really know all there is to know about the parts women played in historical turning points such as the settlement of the Americas? Isabel Allende believes that we do not. For this reason, she wrote Inés of My Soul, to retell the story of one woman who played an enormous role in conquering what is now Chile.

Allende is well known for her works of magical realism, focusing on Chile and its people. Having been born in Peru but raised in Chile, many of Allende’s works, including The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, are largely based on the author’s own life. With Inés of My Soul, however, she takes an entirely different direction, highlighting the achievements of one woman without whom the settlement of Chile might have failed.

Allende begins her tale of the life of Inés Suarez in the protagonist’s homeland, Spain, where she marries her lover, Juan de Málaga, only to be abandoned by him when he decides to go off to explore the “New World.” A woman of intense intelligence, courage and vigor, Inés is not satisfied to sit back and live the life of a traditional Spanish lady. She decides that though she is no longer in love with her husband, she will use the excuse of searching for him to get her to the New World for her own adventure.

Inés travels to the Americas with her niece, Constanza, a soon-to-be-nun who runs off to marry a handsome sailor. Inés, left alone, is constantly plagued by would-be rapists who threaten her very survival. Upon arrival, she learns that her husband, Juan, died in battle in Peru while fighting for the brother of Francisco Pizarro, the famous conquistador.

Inés soon meets Pedro de Valdivia, an accomplished soldier who is also from the same region of Spain as she. He has left behind a timid, prudish wife to find adventure and glory in the New World. His dream is to conquer Chile, and as he and Inés become lovers, they take on this adventure together. The hardships are unimaginable – these two, along with a band of Spanish soldiers and Yanacona Indians – travel south from Peru and battle hunger, thirst and the constant threat of attacks from the natives.

The small settlement of Santiago, Chile is nearly rubbed off the map countless times, often being saved by the quick thinking and intuition of Inés. Readers are introduced not only to this band of enterprising Spaniards, but to the various tribes of people they are attempting to subdue. From the Yanaconas who fight with them to the Mapuche who will battle them to the death to maintain control over their land, these people have their own cultures and way of life that are forever threatened. Reading the story today in 2010 adds to the tragedy. We know what will happen to the indigenous peoples in the end.

The story of Inés is the story of a woman who rose up with courage to succeed where many men failed, yet at the same time, she is not an uncomplicated heroine. Despite her sympathy for tortured Indians and her conviction that she and other Spanish would do the same to defend their land if threatened, she is part of a movement of brutality and theft. Readers can sympathize with her struggles yet cannot embrace her completely. The novel raises intense questions about gender, race, colonialism, courage, and the simple distinction between right and wrong, which is often blurred. With some unexpected twists and incredibly complex characters, Inés of My Soul is a masterpiece you will not be able to put down.


Heather said...

What a great review April! I agree, women in history are too often forgotten. I haven't read Isabel Allende yet, but now you have me very curious about her. I will have to look her up. Thanks for bringing her to my attention!

wisteria said...

I love Isabel Allende! Ines of My Soul was a spectacular book in my opinion. I agree with you it is a masterpiece. It is one of those books I would read again because of her beautiful writing and storytelling brilliance. Thanks for this review.