A Long Petal of the Sea

Written by Isabel Allende Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson (trans.)
Review by Sarah Johnson

Allende’s fluidly written saga conveys her deep familiarity with the events she depicts, and her intent to illustrate their human impact in a moving way. The scope spans most of the lives of Victor Dalmau, a Republican army medic in 1936 Spain, and Roser Bruguera, a music student taken in by Victor’s family and, later, his brother Guillem’s lover and the mother of Guillem’s child. The story follows them over nearly sixty years, beginning with the tumult of the Spanish Civil War. Guillem is killed fighting against the Fascists, news that Victor can’t bear to tell Roser initially. After surviving separate and terrible circumstances that leave them refugees in France, where authorities treat them with contempt and worse, the two marry for practical reasons in order to join Pablo Neruda’s mission transporting over 2000 Spanish exiles to Chile aboard the S.S. Winnipeg. In Santiago, the Dalmaus find many Chileans sympathetic to the Spaniards, while others make them unwelcome.

With a poetic title coming from a poem of Neruda’s referring to Chile as “a long petal of sea and wine and snow,” the novel prompts readers to reflect on the timely themes of cultural adaptation and political refugees’ shared experiences across eras and continents. It also illustrates Victor and Roser’s unusual marriage, which begins out of duty, ripens into affection and mutual admiration, and transforms into something more. Allende frequently steps away from her characters to relay the larger historical picture, as in this memorable passage: “The exodus from Barcelona was a Dantesque spectacle of thousands of people shivering with cold in a stampede that soon slowed to a straggling procession traveling at the speed of the amputees, the wounded, the old folks and the children.” Incidents from the Dalmaus’ lives are sometimes recited rather than shown, which can be distancing, but Allende’s storytelling abilities are undeniable.