Why this book: Selected by my reading group. A number of us had read and liked other books by Isabel Allende, and some of the women were asking for a woman author after a having read several male authors.
My impressions: This is the fourth book of hers that I’ve read – the others being Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and House of Spirits. Isabel Allende is the most widely read Hispanic author in the world – male or female – and she knows how to tell a compelling story. This one is based on a historical figure and the novel is built around as much as she could include of the known history surrounding the woman Ines de Suarez, one of the first Spanish women to come to the New World in the early 16th century. The book is told in first person, in Ines’s voice as an elderly woman, looking back on her life telling her life story to her step daughter just months before she dies. Like Isabel Allende herself, Ines is a feisty and resourceful survivor, and after watching several interviews with Allende on Youtube, I sensed that she had very much injected her personality and voice into Ines – which is not only understandable, but was also enjoyable to read and experience.
The novel begins with her early life in Spain and then how she found her way to the wild and mostly uncivilized New World – very unusual for a woman of that time. She was ostensibly following her husband. Eventually she became the mistress of one of the great conquistadors Pedro de Valdivia and accompanied him in his expedition from Peru into the wild and untamed regions south – to explore and eventually conquer what is now known as Chile. The novel provides fascinating insights into the world of early Spanish colonization of Peru, and includes appearance of some of the early conquistadors, such as Pizarro and Almagro. We also get a glimpse of some of the tension between the Spanish and the conquered Incas less than a generation after Pizarro and his conquistadors conqured the Inca empire. The highlight of the book is Ines describing the hardships and challenges that she and the conquistadors faced in getting to Chile, and upon arriving, trying to establish a foothold against the resistance of the fierce Mapuche Indians. Eventually after much hardship and fighting they were able to establish that tenuous foothold, which eventually became a seat of Spanish civilization, far from their other centers of power in the new world.
It is an enjoyable and fascinating read – especially if one is interested in the challenges that Europeans faced in their early settling of South America. My reading group would have liked more in-depth character development of some of the fascinating men in Ines’s life – the only person we really got to know well was Ines herself – but then again, she was telling the story, and it was her story. I also enjoyed the depictions of the indigenous Mapuche Indians and their culture; apparently Allende did quite a bit of research to tell their stories as accurately as possible. Good book. I recommend it.