Review: Allende’s ‘Violeta’, an epic South American tale

This cover image published by Ballantine shows “Violeta” by Isabel Allende. (Ballantine via AP)

Photo: Associated Press

Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s latest novel is “Violeta,” an epic tale that transports readers through a century of South American history, through economic collapse, dictatorship, and natural disasters like an earthquake and hurricane.

From the aftermath of World War I to the present day, narrator Violeta del Valle tells the story of her life in an unnamed South American country with a letter from a book to her grandson Camilo.

Violeta tells how she lived through the Spanish flu pandemic as the youngest daughter and the only daughter in a family of five children. After their father loses everything in the Great Depression, the family must give up their comfort in an old mansion in the nation’s capital and embrace a more modest life in the rural South.

“Violeta” recalls Allende’s best-known and best-selling novel, “The House of the Spirits,” which intertwines the personal and the political in a saga that spans decades.

“Violeta” also details the horrors of 1970s dictatorships in South America, in which tens of thousands of suspected political opponents were kidnapped, tortured and killed, often through Operation Condor, an alliance backed by United States among the right-wing military governments in the region.

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“The government was committing atrocities, but you could walk down the street and sleep peacefully at night without worrying about common criminals,” Violeta writes about those repressive times.

Violeta’s son is a journalist seeking exile, first in Argentina, then in Norway after learning that he is on the dictatorship’s blacklist.

Violeta suspects that her son’s father is involved in the repression for his work as a pilot. Much of the book deals with Violeta’s long, passionate but troubled relationship with the father of her child after a brief and unsatisfying marriage. Ultimately, he gets end-of-life satisfaction with a retired diplomat and naturalist.

Considered the most widely read Spanish-language author in the world, Allende is known for her numerous novels, including “Eva Luna,” “Of Love and Shadows,” and “A Long Petal of the Sea,” as well as nonfiction books like “Paula, ” a memoir from 1994.

Allende left Chile for exile two years after Salvador Allende, his father’s first cousin, was overthrown in a 1973 coup. He lived for years in Venezuela before settling in the United States.

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