At the heart of Aurora's slow,
painful recreation of her childhood towers one of Allende's
greatest fictional creations, the heroine's grandmother, Paulina
del Valle. An "astute, bewigged Amazon with a gluttonous
appetite," Paulina holds both the del Valle family and
Allende's novel together as she presides over Aurora's
adolescence in a haze of pastries, taffeta and overweening love.
childhood takes her from San Francisco to Europe to Chile, from
extravagant Californian mansions to South American battlefields
and Chilean vineyards. Born in 1862, she is raised for the first
five years of her life by her maternal grandparents in San
Francisco's Chinatown. Her wise and brave grandfather, Tao
Chi'en, surrounds her with love after her mother's death, which
occurs just hours after she was born.
Aurora, or Mai
Ling, as she was called by Tao Chi'en, has little contact with
her paternal, Chilean family until tragedy strikes and she is
sent to live with them. Far from the comforts of Chinatown and
Tao Chi'en, she lives with her passionate and flamboyant
grandmother, Paulina del Valle. Life with the del Valle family
is always dramatic and dynamic and becomes even more so as
Aurora and her grandmother leave America and move to Chile.
As she grows,
Aurora learns more about both sides of her family, about the
mystery of her father, about politics, the ravages of war and
poverty and the joys of love. Out of the faded memories of her
shattered childhood she begins to not only unravel the mystery
of her past, but also finds meaning in the nightmares that haunt
Allende exercises her supreme storytelling abilities, in which
strong, passionate characters play a critical role. And once
again, she artfully and authentically evokes the nineteenth
century in her native Chile and in California, her current
residence. In Chile, it is a time of economic expansion as well
as war. Chile is skirmishing with neighbouring Peru and Bolivia
and is also enmeshed in civil war.
of her native country is finely shaded: "This Chile of
geological cataclysms and human pettiness, but also of rugged
volcanoes and snowy peaks, of immemorial lakes scattered with
emeralds, of foaming rivers and fragrant forests, a country
narrow as a ribbon, a land of impoverished people, still
innocent despite so many and such varied abuses."
California, on the
other hand, is witness to the post-gold rush days, and San
Francisco teems and thrives.
One of the most
interesting aspects of the novel is Allende's decision to turn
her heroine into a photographer: "Through photography and
the written word I try desperately to conquer the transitory
nature of my existence, to trap moments before they evanesce, to
untangle the confusion of my past."
Allende uses the
metaphor of photography as memory. "Each of us chooses the
tone for telling his or her own story; I would like to choose
the durable clarity of a platinum print, but nothing in my
destiny possesses that luminosity, " declares Aurora del
and the novel's, is summed up in the attitude of her photography
teacher, who "believes in photography as a personal
testimony, a way of seeing the world, and that way must be
honest, using technology as a medium for capturing reality, not
And these lines
from the protoganist sum up Allende's brilliant sixth novel:
"The tone for telling my life (story) is closer to that of
a Portrait in Sepia."
The novel has been
variously dubbed "complex", "intriguing "
and "ambitious"— all realisms that Allende's work
magically lives up to.