In the first pages of Isabel Allende’s new novel, a young medical student holds the heart of a dying child soldier in his hand and gently squeezes it.
“Suddenly,” Allende writes, “he felt the heart coming back to life between his fingers, first with an almost imperceptible tremor, soon with a strong, regular beat.”
After the boy is taken away for treatment of his chest wound, a doctor asks where Victor Dalmau learned such a technique.
“Nowhere, but I thought there was nothing to lose. ...”
Hearts that awaken when there is nothing to lose beat throughout A Long Petal of the Sea, the 22nd book by Allende. Sweeping from the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s to the military coup in Chile in 1973 and its aftermath, the book recounts the unlikely story of Dalmau and his wife, Roser — who finally fall in love almost 40 years after they marry.
A Long Petal of the Sea is Allende’s 15th work of fiction; she has also published three YA books and four nonfiction books. She is the bestselling living author writing in Spanish, with 75 million copies of her books sold worldwide. In 2018, she became the first Spanish-language author to receive the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters; Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
Born in Peru in 1942, Allende was raised in Chile but fled to Venezuela when the government led by Salvador Allende, her father’s cousin, was overthrown by the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973. She has lived in California since 1989, but her family’s long history in Chile and elsewhere in South America has remained a rich source for her writing.
Love and politics have always intertwined in Allende’s fiction, starting with her first novel, The House of the Spirits, in 1982. That theme continues in A Long Petal of the Sea, its title borrowed from a poem by the Chilean poet, politician and diplomat Pablo Neruda. He appears several times in the book as a character whose interventions will alter the course of Victor’s and Roser’s lives.
Victor was born in Barcelona, the elder son of a music professor, Marcel Lluis Dalmau, and his wife, Carme. A bookish introvert who grows up to be a workaholic, Victor leaves medical school to serve in the Republican army fighting the fascist Nationalists led by Gen. Francisco Franco. Victor’s younger brother, Guillem, is charismatic, handsome and a born soldier who distinguishes himself in battle.
With both sons at war, the Dalmaus take in one of Marcel’s students. Roser Bruguera is a talented pianist, grateful to have been rescued from grinding poverty by a wealthy old man who sends her to Barcelona to study. She’s given Guillem’s unused bedroom, Allende writes: “From lying so often with her head on the pillow of the younger of the Dalmau boys, breathing in traces of Guillem’s manly smell, the girl fell in love with him, and would not allow distance, time, or war to dissuade her.”
By the war’s end, Guillem is dead and Roser is carrying his child. She joins Carme, now a widow, among a flood of refugees fleeing Franco’s bloody vengeance. Almost half a million Spaniards cross the border into France, where they’re seen as “Reds, filthy fugitives, deserters, delinquents.” Carme disappears along the route. Held in a concentration camp on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, Roser, far into pregnancy, sleeps in a shallow trench scooped in the sand in the dead of winter.
Months later, Victor finds her and her baby. They hear about a ship commissioned by Neruda to take Spanish refugees to Chile — but to get aboard, Victor and Roser must marry, and he must claim his brother’s son as his own.
In Chile, their marriage of convenience soon becomes a warm, supportive friendship. But their personal lives take a number of surprising turns, some related to the wealthy family of Victor’s friend Felipe del Solar, who also introduces Victor to Salvador Allende.
Years later, that connection will lead to another intrusion of the political into the personal. After Pinochet’s coup, the Dalmaus will once again become refugees. Victor will have a turn in a concentration camp before they reunite and return to Spain, only to find it’s no longer their home.
Allende’s writing about war and its impact on civilians is harrowing. But among the most affecting parts of A Long Petal of the Sea are its latter chapters, about aging and the changing nature of love. Allende captures the heat of youthful love affairs, but she also brings to life the deep tenderness of taking care of someone when you know there is everything to lose.
A Long Petal of the Sea
By Isabel Allende
Ballantine Books, 318 pages, $28
Meet the author
Oxford Exchange presents Isabel Allende in conversation about her new historical novel with Tampa Bay Times book editor Colette Bancroft. Tickets $42, includes a presigned copy of the book in English or Spanish. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27. Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St. (813) 274-8286. tampatheatre.org.