"A Long Petal of the Sea" follows a family fleeing the Spanish Civil War and enduring repeated uprooting and upheavals over the course of their lives. They are imagined to be among those who were aboard the real-life SS Winnipeg, an old cargo ship organized by the poet Pablo Neruda to bring Spanish exiles to Chile. The book's title comes from a Neruda poem.
The novel is strongest in its depictions of what innocent people endure when caught in the crosshairs of warring political parties. The main characters, Victor and Roser, are held at a French concentration camp before they earn passage on the Chile-bound ship. "In order to survive without going mad, the prisoners organized themselves," Allende writes. "They sang, read whatever they could lay their hands on, taught those who needed it to read and write ... and sought to preserve their dignity cutting one another's hair and checking each other for lice and washing their clothes in the freezing seawater." The prisoners survived their meager rations by creating illusions of "restaurants with invisible food that the cooks described in great detail while the others savored the tastes with their eyes closed."
While the Chilean president accepted the refugees, not all Chileans welcomed the idea. Allende captures this split in society, writing that "the right-wing newspapers claimed that other countries offered money, but none wanted to welcome Reds, those rapists of nuns, murderers, bandits, unscrupulous atheists, and Jews, who were bound to put the country's security in jeopardy." It is impossible not to see parallels with the dehumanizing language used these days about Latin Americans, Syrians and others, who are escaping violence in their homelands.
Unfortunately, the book is weighed down by its flaws. To start, the dialogue is often stilted, with phrases and sentence structures divorced from how people actually speak. The novel also spans more than 50 years, and at times it feels like the author struggled with the longevity of the narrative arch. Near the end, time-jumping transitions jarringly appear in the middle of chapters: "Three years after" and "Several years were to go by before he could keep his promise."
Finally, Allende's writing is sprinkled with cringe-worthy ethnic tropes: "drooping Arab eyelids," "the quiet acceptance of an arranged marriage in India," "You know what they do to (young women captured), don't you? They hand them over to the Moors." In one particularly flinch-inducing passage, she writes: "no one could doubt his solid Castilian-Basque lineage, with not a drop of Arab or Jewish blood in his veins." Allende, who wrote her acclaimed debut novel, "The House of Spirits," almost 40 years ago and is now 77, grew up in a different era. One could perhaps forgive her dated and inept use of racist language but one of her editors should have intercepted it. It is possible to evoke a time period without embracing its intolerance.