When we read of a “colossal grandmother” and a little girl with green hair, we probably think we know where we are. When we further encounter the abundant flora of southern Chile, an orphan, a rambling mansion, a handful of wise Indian women, and an irresistible tropical passion, we can hardly doubt our location. This is the world of magical realism, where reality is all profusion, and fantasy is just another name for local color.
In this particular case, which is Isabel Allende’s new novel, we are both right and wrong in our assumption. With House of the Spirits (1982) Allende began her career as an elegant and charming magical realist, and has worked much in this vein since, especially in Eva Luna (1987) and The Stories of Eva Luna (1990). But there was always an element of historical romance in these books, and this element has now taken over. There is very little magic in Portrait in Sepia, although characters from House of the Spirits reappear here, including the girl with green hair, and there are only modest doses of realism. There is plenty of melodrama, and a proficient and easy flow of narrative.
The narrator and main character is Aurora del Valle, the illegitimate child of an American beauty and a Chilean rake. She was born in San Francisco in 1880, and the opening paragraph of the novel sets the tone:
While inside that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to open a way out to me, the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of shouted dialects, its inexhaustible swarms of human bees hurrying back and forth.
This is all more than a little ready-made, but certainly grand and sweeping enough. Of course the mother is going to die in childbirth, that’s what her valiant heart means, and of course the savage life of the Chinese quarter is a key element in Aurora’s lifelong nightmare, fully understood only in the final pages. I don’t know why Chinese food would be exotic in Chinatown, but I know why the aroma of the food is unforgettable. In this kind of fiction all aromas are unforgettable.
Aurora is adopted by her colossal grandmother, the rich and extravagant Paulina del Valle, and at the age of five is whisked off to Chile, where she grows up, becomes a gifted photographer, gets married, leaves her husband (unfortunately his irresistible tropical passion is for someone else, his sister-in-law), finds true love, or at least kindness and friendship and lots of sex, with a doctor friend, and solves the riddle of the dream that has been haunting her. There is a civil war in Chile, and much associated turbulence. Aurora evokes a remote hacienda where newspapers are so out-of-date when they arrive that they bring “no news, only history,” and she has a tender but quite unromantic passage about …