Long Petal of the Sea

A Long Petal of the Sea
Isabel Allende
Reviewed by Phil

Isabel Allende’s latest book, A Long Petal of the Sea, draws its title from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s description of his homeland as “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” Lines from Neruda’s poetry introduce each chapter of the novel, and the poet makes a couple of appearances. But this book belongs really to Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera, two refugees from the Spanish civil war searching for a home.

It’s the late 1930s. As the Nationalist forces close in on the northern holdouts of the government, Republican soldiers and civilians flee towards France in the great exodus known as the Retreat. Among them are Victor, a medical auxiliary, his mother, Carme, and Roser, the pregnant girlfriend of Victor’s brother, Guillem. In the chaos and confusion, the three become separated, but Victor and Roser manage to reconnect in the refugee camps of southern France.

The poet, Pablo Neruda, serving as consul to the French government, is charged with chartering a vessel, the Winnipeg, to ship some of the refugees to Chile. To increase their chances of obtaining places on the ship, Victor and Roser pretend to be husband and wife. Their ruse is successful, and the couple escape to begin new lives in the “long petal.”

But then, in 1973, comes Pinochet. In a cruel twist of fate, the Spanish refugees, long-settled in Chile and Chilean at heart, become refugees once again…

A Long Petal of the Sea is a wonderful read. It's an adventure and a love story, but also a documentary of troubled times. Allende blends fact with fiction almost seamlessly, so you’re left wondering what is real and what is imagined. For the record, Neruda did charter the Winnipeg, which sailed from France with more than 2000 Spanish refugees, arriving in Chile on September 3, 1939, just as war was declared in Europe.

Isabel Allende was born in Peru, where her father was a diplomat in the Chilean embassy. She grew up in Chile. Following the military coup in 1973, Allende fled to Venezuela, where she lived for 13 years. Her books include The House of the Spirits and In the Midst of Winter. In 2010 she received Chile’s National Literature Prize. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Allende became a US citizen in 1993 and she now lives in California.

A Long Petal of the Sea will be released on January 21st.