Island Beneath the Sea

Written by Isabel Allende
Review by Lisa Ann Verge

Isabel Allende is at the top of her game in Island Beneath the Sea, a seductive, sprawling historical novel set in Haiti and New Orleans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Zarité is a young slave bought by a French nobleman, Valmorain, to help care for his mentally unstable Spanish bride on a Saint-Domingue sugar plantation. She soon experiences the fate of many female slaves, and gives birth to a son who Valmorain callously sends away. However, when Zarité proves herself irreplaceable taking care of Valmorain’s white son, Maurice, the master allows her to keep their second child, a daughter by the name of Rosette. These twin ties are enough to keep Zarité from racing to freedom with her young lover, a runaway slave who has a prominent role in the bloody slave revolt, but her price for saving Valmorain’s life—and getting them all out of Saint-Domingue—is a paper promising Zarité and her daughter their freedom. After moving to a plantation in New Orleans, Valmorain neglects his promise, and this leads to trouble not only for Zarité and Rosette, but also for Valmorain’s only son, Maurice, who grows up determined to be a different sort of man than his father.

Isabel Allende is a fabulous storyteller who brings to life a world of disparate characters and makes the reader care—even for the very worst of them. The author effortlessly portrays slave life as well as the fine gradations of New Orleans’ white and multi-colored society. Once again, Ms. Allende has written the kind of novel that you swiftly sink into; the kind that you wish would never end.