In December 1991 Isabel Allende’s daughter Paula fell into a coma. With little knowledge of how long it would last and how damaged her child would be the other side, Allende began to write her a letter that would serve to remind her of the history of her family. Her uncle, Salvador Allende, was the President of Chile murdered and deposed by the coup leading to General Pinochet’s dictatorship. Meaning that Paula’s mother was in close proximity to some significant modern history. And as a journalist and TV presenter in democratic Chile in the 70s, she had access too to a varied range of exciting experiences. BUT as the product of a fascinating and (often strange) family, she also had a wealth of personal and reported anecdotes to fill her memoir with the full gamut of human experience.
The set up of the text is simple – Allende writes to Paula, writes about writing to Paula, and as Paula’s condition slowly deteriorates, she writes less to the bodily Paula prostate on a bed, and more to the memory and the image of the woman when she was healthy. It is a book about loss – on the surface the slow acceptance of that of her daughter, but also too the loss of her grandparents, the father she never knew, her first marriage, the career she had before the coup, the friends who died, the country and the houses she lived in and the innocence she lost when abused by a fisherman as a child. But though it is a text about loss, and change, and movement, often movement away from things that made her happy, it is also one of hope. For the memories of Paula, of places, of being in love, of experiencing new things, are valuable. And as Allende’s life changes, the reader is walked through the beginnings of her literary ambitions, follows through the love affair with her second husband, follows the joys and the highlights of a varied, international life. Often memoirs can be irritating when the writer begins discussing how successful he or she is, but with Allende I did not feel that at all. If anything, I felt proud. I felt pleased.
Because in this book I feel I learnt a lot, and felt a lot. I repeatedly cried. The conversations between Allende and Ernesto, Paula’s husband, upset me every time. I cried when her mother-in-law descended to alcoholism after being left alone in dictatorial Chile. I cried when Allende’s grandfather lost the spark and intelligence that made the passages he featured in so fun to read. I cried when she tried and failed to escape her first marriage, I cried when Paula became more ill, I cried when corrupt generals murdered a good Socialist president… I cried a lot. And I learnt a lot about modern history, various industries I knew little about, parts of the world I have never been to.
This is an excellent memoir – moving, witty, elegantly written. I am sure negative reviews would accuse it of sentimentality, but I disagree with that. It is a distraught, grief-stricken woman writing about the happiest and saddest times of her life as she comes to terms with the premature loss of her daughter. This is a beautiful book, and I will certainly be reading others by Allende in the near future. Highly recommended.