A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende, author; Edoardo Ballerini, narrator
This is a well researched, beautifully written novel which begins in the 1930’s and takes us forward for six plus decades of turmoil in the lives of Victor and Roser Dalmau as they seek a homeland. It is sometimes about history and sometimes it is about romance. It is about migrants, exiles, asylum seekers, secrets, idealism, loyalty, devotion, politics, war and corruption in the church, but always there is hope in the end. It begins with the story of those who fled Franco’s Spain when the Nationalists who were Fascists defeated the Republicans who were Marxists and Socialists. Franco’s government was a military dictatorship which was ruled with an iron fist.
The reader is taken through the Spanish Civil War as innocent and guilty alike are caught in the web of intrigue and terror. The Civil War tore the country apart. At the same time as the Spanish were struggling to survive the change in government and loyalties, World War II broke out. Those who hadn’t supported Franco were in mortal danger as they were captured, tortured and murdered. Those that could, eventually fled. Not all countries would accept refugees, but Chile welcomed them.
Victor Dalmau was from Barcelona, Spain. His mother had been preparing to become a nun when she met his father, a prominent music teacher, and fell in love. She left the convent and to avoid having their children labeled as bastards, the couple married. Children born out of wedlock becomes a recurrent theme in the novel.
Victor studied medicine in Spain. He was not a fan of Franco, and when the Civil War broke out, he worked in a hospital to treat those who were injured fighting against him. When Victor was injured, he returned home to Barcelona and his parents, until he recovered. In the house with them was Roser Bruguera, his father’s best, young music student. His parents had taken her into their home when her family fell onto hard times. She was like family to Victor. Victor’s brother, Guillem, however, had a romantic relationship with her that she took more seriously than he did.
After he got well, Victor returned to the hospital to help the injured. Then one day, he received a call from his mother. His father was ill and near death. He had to locate his brother, and both of them needed to return home if they hoped to see their father alive once again. Victor had difficulty locating his brother because Guillem, was on the front, fighting.
Time passed and the war raged on. The hygiene conditions were terrible and Guillem became gravely ill with Typhus. He was sent home to die or recover. With the care from Roser and his mother, he recovered and was able to return to the battlefield. However, during his recuperation, Roser was so devoted to him that he fell in love with her. They pledged to marry, but Guillem did not return home. He never knew that Roser was pregnant with his child.
In order to flee Spain, when Franco set up his regime,Victor and Roser pose as a married couple, and with his mother, they leave on the ship, the SS Winnipeg, that Pablo Neruda had chartered. They went to the long petal of the sea which is how the poet, Neruda, refers to Chile. He calls it “the long petal of sea and wine and snow”. When Roser learns of Guillem’s death, Victor swears to raise their child as his own, and he and Roser marry for appearance’s sake, although they live like brother and sister.
In Chile, Victor has his own affair with a young girl, Ofelia, who was already promised to someone else. So, although Victor and Ofelia had no future, once again, there is an unexpected pregnancy. To avoid shame, Ofelia goes to a church that cares for unwed mothers. After she delivers, she is told her son was born dead. Ofelia never told Victor that she was pregnant, so like his brother, he was unaware that he was to be a father.
After time passes, Roser and Victor realize that they have grown deeply in love. The child, Marcel, was born in Chile. They feel like Chile is their home. Revolution soon followed them there, too, and they were forced to flee once again. This time they went to Venezuela. History repeated and they had to leave there, as well, but by then they were able to return to Chile. Like a revolving door, chaos followed them. When Spain opened its arms to them, they wondered if they should pick up and move again. Should they return to Spain? Where was home?
The story is complicated. There are many characters and experiences that have to be knitted together. There are many repetitive themes, war, greed, pregnancy, religious corruption, innocence, guilt, loss and shame. The novel contains many elements of history and bits and pieces of fiction and non-fiction that are woven together skillfully to make it an interesting read. Although there is sex, it is not gratuitous.
The audio narrator is very good, keeping a safe personal distance from the story, but portraying the story well.
To sum it up, revolution follows revolution which is followed by torture and arrest, exile follows exile, from one country to the next, love affair follows love affair, illegitimate children multiply until the story goes full circle, and there is the right of return to a homeland.
The story feels more authentic because, coincidentally, the author’s life parallel’s several moments in the book.