Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Review: 'In the Midst of Winter' by Isabel Allende

I think The House of Spirits was the first book by Allende I read and it captured me straight away. Isabel Allende's books filled me with a sense of wonder and magic from the moment I was old enough to read them. There was something about her style that just worked for me. I also adored her YA-trilogy, Eagle and Jaguar. However, I lost track of Allende and her new releases, until, that is, I saw In the Midst of Winter and my interest was immediately piqued again. Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/11/2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Scribner
Worldwide bestselling “dazzling storyteller” (Associated Press) Isabel Allende returns with a sweeping novel about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story that journeys from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil.
In the Midst of Winter begins with a minor traffic accident—which becomes the catalyst for an unexpected and moving love story between two people who thought they were deep into the winter of their lives. Richard Bowmaster—a 60-year-old human rights scholar—hits the car of Evelyn Ortega—a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala—in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. What at first seems just a small inconvenience takes an unforeseen and far more serious turn when Evelyn turns up at the professor’s house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz—a 62-year-old lecturer from Chile—for her advice. These three very different people are brought together in a mesmerizing story that moves from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil, sparking the beginning of a long overdue love story between Richard and Lucia.
Exploring the timely issues of human rights and the plight of immigrants and refugees, the book recalls Allende’s landmark novel The House of the Spirits in the way it embraces the cause of “humanity, and it does so with passion, humor, and wisdom that transcend politics” (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post). 
In the Midst of Winter will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Allende's fiction has always addressed the issues in her home continent, and especially her home country of Chile. As she was related to Chilean president Salvador Allende, the CIA-backed coup against him and the turmoil it caused in her country also affected her personally. These experiences reflect differently in her various books and I was intrigued to see how it came to the forefront in In the Midst of Winter. At the heart of this novel are the issues of immigration, refugees and human rights, issues which are still incredibly timely and relevant. In the Midst of Winter focuses on these through the stories of its characters and this allows Allende to highlight the hardship and suffering refugees go through. Some of the chapters, especially in relation to Evelyn's story, are heartbreaking and not for the fainthearted. Some of Allende's descriptions are cruelly truthful and she doesn't let you look away, no matter how much you might like to. But despite the horror she describes, Allende also shows the kindness and bravery of people in the face of such horror. How people help each other, how they care for the old and sick, the young and needy, how love doesn't heal every wound but makes some of the scars easier to bare. That side of In the Midst of Winter is truly inspirational.

Allende's In the Midst of Winter brings together three different characters in the middle of a blizzard in Brooklyn. Thrown together seemingly by chance, they exchange their stories and share experiences as they try to solve a rather immediate problem. Richard, stuffy academic that he seems, hides a deeply shameful past in Rio de Janeiro; Evelyn, undocumented and scared has survived horrors on her journey from Guatemala to America; and Lucia, who escaped Santiago and is still looking for something. Lucia is Richard's tenant and their relationship is distant, but they are brought closer together when Richard accidentally hits Evelyn's car and she comes to his house seeking for help. As they try to help their stories come to the surface and Allende frequently flits between the past and the present, as well as between the different characters. Although this can initially be a little bit confusing, it really pays off as it shows how many hidden depths every person has, how much suffering hides behind a face and how much we may have in common despite our vast differences. As Allende unravels their backstories, the reader becomes more and more invested in these characters and more desperate for their problem to resolve itself.

Most of Isabel Allende's books that I have read were of that most wonderful of genres, Magical Realism. In the Midst of Winter is not that, but rather falls along the lines of Historical Fiction. However, Allende manages to infuse many of its scenes with a similar magic and beauty. Her South-America is one of both wonder and fear, just as her people are both horrid and loving. She maintains that fine balance for most of the book, and it is a truly fine balance to strike. I'm about to talk about something which the blurb already mentions and I therefore feel I can discuss as well, but it is technically a spoiler so if you really don't want to know, perhaps skip the rest of this paragraph. A large part of In the Midst of Winter is dedicated to the "love story" between Richard and Lucia and I simply couldn't have cared less for it. Usually this is a criticism I direct at YA novels and I'm frustrated that it applies so well in this case as well. Allende has a fascinating story that allows her to dig into some really crucial topics and yet I have to care for this love story? Both of those characters are more interesting apart from each other, and actually Evelyn is more interesting than either of them. I felt like Allende's focus on this betrayed the novel's potential and also went against some of the characterisation she had put in place. It really didn't work for me and left me disappointed in the novel. It may be completely different for other readers, but it felt utterly unnecessary to me.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I loved certain aspects of In the Midst of Winter and it has shook parts of me to the core. Allende's novel holds some crucial lessons about the truth of the fate of refugees. However, I felt some of Allende's plot choices betrayed what the novel could have been. I would recommend it to those interested in South-America and refugees, as well as Historical Fiction.

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