Island Beneath the Sea
Reviewed by Annis
To Haiti’s African slaves the "island beneath the sea" is a mystical otherworld. The ocean’s reflected surface represents a mirror dividing the parallel worlds of the living and the dead. It can be pierced by voodoo ritual to allow communication with the gods and the dead.
Haiti was born in the late eighteenth century, a time of great social upheaval. In France the existing order was overthrown by violent revolution, echoed on its Caribbean possession, the island of Saint Dominigue, which would become Haiti. The island's wealth lay in sugar-plantations owned by Frenchmen and worked in horrific conditions by a seemingly endless supply of African slaves. Disease is rampant. The very air seems filled with a miasma of fear and anguish. Slaves seek consolation in voodoo, their owners in rum and slave girls.
Through the entwined stories of aristocratic French plantation owner Toulouse Valmorain and his slave concubine, Tété, Island Beneath the Sea personalizes the wider drama of Haiti’s struggle to become an independent black nation. Together, Tété and her master escape the bloody slave revolution of 1793, fleeing to New Orleans in French Louisiana.
Understated irony illustrates the philosophical and moral anomalies of the time. French Republican ideals of equality and liberty don’t apply to black slaves, who are not seen as human. Valmorain, who regards himself as an enlightened rationalist, calls in a veterinarian to treat his slaves.
A splendid historical pageant set in a world where life is ruled by race and colour to the most rigorous degree, Island Beneath the Sea is in equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Vibrant descriptive prose alternates with contrived didactic passages which distance the reader from the story. A host of richly drawn characters both real and fictional throngs the pages, but we can’t connect with them; we can see but not touch, and the main protagonist, Tété, remains infuriatingly elusive. Allende gives us a dazzling reflection, but not the magic with which to penetrate its surface. (2010 English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden, 451 pages)
More about Island Beneath the Sea at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels about slave women on Caribbean plantations:
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (2010). More info
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James (2010). More info
Nonfiction about Haiti and New Orleans:
Avengers of the New World; the Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois (2005). More info
Voodoo in Haiti by Alfred Metraux (1989). More info
Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans by Shannon Lee Dawdy (2009). More info
At the Movies:
Égalité for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, a PBS documentary about the Haitian Revolution
"Miroir Danjere" by Madison Smartt Bell, about the voodoo concept of the Island Below Sea
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