The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 11, 2002

Images as metaphors
Deepika Gurdev

Portrait in Sepia
by Isabel Allende. Harper Collins. Pages 304. Singapore $15 (paperback).

Portrait in SepiaIN this historical work, a young woman looks back on her childhood in the late 19th-century Chile and San Francisco. This sweeping novel encompasses war, revolution and family crises.

Rich in characters with plots skillfully revealed, Portrait in Sepia, Isabel Allende's latest novel picks up where 1999's Daughter of Fortune left off. In the course of its chronicles, it mentions people and personalities who were realised in her 1987 masterpiece, House of the Spirits.

If you liked the earlier two novels, you are bound to love this book which completes the trilogy. In case you missed the earlier masterpieces, this could well prove to be the perfect Allende starting point.

Here Allende, who has established herself as one of the most consummate modern storytellers, offers a compelling saga of the turbulent history, lives and loves of that period.

In typical Allende fashion, the novel is crammed with tragedy and dark family secrets, all played out against the dramatic backdrop of revolutionary Chile. The heroine, Aurora del Valle's mother is a Chilean-Chinese beauty, while her father is a dissolute scion of the wealthy and powerful del Valle family.


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.

Aurora's turbulent 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 her.

Through Aurora, 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.

Allende's portrait 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 Valle.

Her philosophy, 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 distorting it."

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.