A Review of Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia

Portrait in Sepia is a very easy to read, well researched, straightforward narrative, which is interesting for its historical context, and perhaps relaxing, albeit devoid of serious philosophical depths, real characterisation, or linguistic innovation.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Portrait in Sepia
By Isabel Allende
Hardcover, HarperCollins, October 2001
ISBN: 0066211611

Chilean author Isabel Allende is probably one of the most popular historical fiction writer in the world. Her work sells nearly as well as John Grisham’s, although her avid followers place her work firmly in the literary fiction genre. Allende’s latest novel, Portrait in Sepiais, like Allende’s earlier work, probably best classed as a historical romance, although it contains none of the magic realism elements of her earlier work. It does contain lots of other classic Allende styling though, from its cross America settings, its span across generations, the character’s names, and its political and sociological perspectives. Don’t let the academic words fool you though, Portrait in Sepia is a very easy to read, well researched, straightforward narrative, which is interesting for its historical context, and perhaps relaxing, albeit devoid of serious philosophical depths, real characterisation, or linguistic innovation. Aurora del Valle is the narrator, speaking to an imaginary and undefined reader as she composes her memoirs, and her story picks up on the storylines and characters from Allende’s previous novels, Daughter of Fortune , and House of the Spirits, turning the 3 novels into a trilogy. The work stands on its own though, as Aurora recounts her past, and discovers her own secrets as she re-creates her childhood in San Francisco, her move from poor home in Chinatown to rich mansion at the home of her aunt Pauline, and finally to a warring Chile, where she begins to discover her own talents as a photographer, and discover her “self” through love, and a kind of personal Freudian therapy.

The story itself is plot, rather than character driven, and relies on Aurora’s suppressed past hinted at through her unexplained nightmares, for its suspense. Aurora is born in 1862, and the novel is set at a particularly important point in Chile’s history, The War of the Pacific, when Chile declared war on its neighbours Bolivia and Peru, and afterwards, as the country underwent internal revolution and civil war after a coup against the government in 1891. The details of the painful war, and the contradiction between Chile’s valour, and its brutality are historically quite interesting, and Allende knows her South American history. Unfortunately the characters, particularly that of Aurora the main character, are not deeply drawn enough to pull the reader into the tale. While the language is heightened in some aspects, purple even in its descriptions of Chile’s beauty, of the horrors of revolution, or the sweaty embraces of romance, the main problem is that Aurora never really allows us inside herself. We never feel her story in its immediacy; never identify with her, or feel her pain as she experiences the awkwardness and rejections of the present, and uncovers the secrets of her past. In many of the scenes, Aurora attempts to describe the sensual intoxication she feels with the land, which leads to her becoming a photographer, but instead leaves the reader flat, as she piles image upon image, passively describing the landscape as she recalls it: “I was intoxicated by the scent of the damp forest, that sensual aroma of red earth, sap, and roots, the peace of the dense growth guarded by those silent green giants, the mysterious murmur of growing things, the song of unseen waters, the dance of the air through the branches, the whispering of roots and insects, the cooing of gentle ring doves and raucous cries of the chimangos”. The reader feels as though he or she should be moved by these descriptions, but instead feels detached, as the language provides both too much, and too little, over-describing the landscape, and overformalising Aurora’s expressions. Between the mysterious murmering, the water song, the air dancing, the whispering roots and insects, the doves cooing and the chimangos crying raucously, the reader has become numb. The language is also hampered by cliché, and overworked, mixed metaphor, as for example, Aurora describes her love for Chile in what should be a moving passage, but instead becomes bogged down by the heaviness of its broad scope:

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.

The love scenes too are hampered by their almost Harlequin like descriptions of the extraordinary pleasures, the throbbing knots of arms, enjoined lips, and “voracious appetites” as Severo and Nivea: “kissed, licked, and penetrated, swallowing their sighs and biting pillows to smother the sounds of joyous licentiousness that lifted them to glory again and again during those all-too-brief nights.” Lifted to glory? One feels that Aurora’s awakening, her pain at the convent, the horrors undergone by Severo during his war, Nivea’s long wait and extensive foray into motherhood, are all pale brown (sepia) stories told by someone in a bar where you just can’t bring yourself to give your full attention.

Other important characters, like Aurora’s flamboyant grandmother Paulina del Valle, and her opposite, the serene, sophisticated grandfather, Tao Chi’en, are equally cartoon like. Paulina is well described, and her outrageous costumes, her fancy bed, her excessive appetite, and her loud, dynamic personality provide potential for some Dickensian comic passages, but again, these are never realised, as Paulina instead becomes some character out of a made-for-television drama. She is “Passionate” rather than full of passion, “Wealthy” rather than a woman with money. Defined by the labels that Aurora and others place upon her, we never begin to love her, nor do we dislike her. She is merely another character. One feels all of the characters in Portrait in Sepia are so clearly labelled, and clearly limited in the depths of their character.

Aurora’s sudden epiphany where she uncovers the source of her nightmares, or the sudden reappearance of her maternal grandmother Lynn Sommers comes across as a kind of deus ex machina – an artificial device to provide closure and finish off the tale. The use of photography with its visual imagery, and the way in which Aurora uses it to try and document, and uncover the meaning of her life and country, much as she uses her words is one with excellent potential. Allende does her homework and describes well the equipment, and Aurora’s desperation to turn her craft into art, but once again, her overt descriptions, and flat imagery leaves the reader wanting more depth, and less baroque cliché metaphors as she grows “weak in the knees” falls into “deathlike sleeps”, and creates “haunting images” with “impeccable clarity”. Throughout the novel I was reminded of the female photographer in Simone Lazaroo’s The Australian Fiance, who also uses photography to come to grips with her loss and emerging sense of sexuality: “She closes her eyes to this light that is like the end of light”, and how deeply we come to know this nameless, lightly drawn person as if it were someone within ourselves. Compared to The Australian FiancePortrait in Sepia comes across as both overwritten, unoriginal, and underdeveloped. Nonetheless, this book has already become very successful, and Allende fans who loved the other sweeping historical romances will probably enjoy this one too. Perhaps this book was written with the idea of filming in mind. Good books often make lousy films; the depth of character, and linguistic beauty simply doesn’t translate well from a verbal to a visual medium. Portrait in Sepia,like its two predecessors, will probably make the transition perfectly.