My first WIT Month rec of the year! Island Beneath the Sea written by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, and read by S. Epatha Merkerson. It is an astounding story that revolves around the life of Zarite, a slave on the island of Saint-Domingue.
With a total length just under 18 hours, this is a bit more of an audiobook than I typically prefer to bite off, but the story is well worth the time it takes to read or listen to. It probably would have been broken down into two or even three books had it come from a less reliable author. As it is, Allende has a long and illustrious list of best-sellers that I believe comes to 22 books that have been translated into many languages. She has a full list of books, with all their international editions on her website: Isabel Allende. Let me stop before I go too far down the rabbit hole on how awesome she is (but seriously check out her TEDtalks, one is about tales of passion and the other is about living passionately).
I adore Zarite. She’s a great protagonist for several reasons but as with all great protagonists, these reasons center around her being a well developed character with love she shouldn’t feel, actions that aren’t good for her, trusting the wrong people at times, and a belief system that has needed to be reconciled over and over again with the world around her.
The story is told mostly in the third person but chapters occasionally veer into her first person perspective and are generally named after her so it’s not a surprise when it happens. It begins well before we meet Zarite, when the world that she must inhabit is being formed by the elder people around her. Before we meet Zarite, we meet her owner, Toulouse Valmorain, his wife Eugenia, and the woman who helps Valmorain obtain her and who trains her for him, Violette Boisier. Each character is developed, given reasons for what they do and are stuck in traps by class and society or of their own making at some point. None are entirely good or bad, though they have varying degrees of corruption. I loved Zarite’s growth arc and as well as each of the secondary characters.
The world building and setting are amazing, looking back at times that are often called “simpler” but couldn’t have been. It begins on a plantation in Saint-Domingue not too long before it becomes the slave revolt that changes it to Haiti and then migrates to New Orleans during turbulent times there as well.
For me, much of the story serves as a prosaic reminder that the times we have romanticized in the US were not actually romantic. They were riddled with personal strife of a different ilk, though not without their own versions of hope. There was also a lot more nuance to the experiences of the people living in those times than we like to credit them for when we put romantic labels on them, even when they are bad ones. Somehow, none of this stopped the story and it’s characters from having a gorgeous growth arc and leaving on a realistically high note.