Literary legend Isabel Allende’s latest epic, A Long Petal of the Sea, has been garnering rave reviews – and she recently talked books, lust, gluttony and more at a spirited Southbank launch event in London. Here she reveals why this is such a pertinent book for our times...
Isabel Allende has sold 74 million books to date. Her latest good book, A Long Petal of the Sea, hit number 8 on the New York Times bestseller list in February 2020. And this novel – a stunning tale of love, courage and displacement – couldn’t be more timely.
Books about refugees are big news. Jeanine Cummins American Dirt (opens in new tab), which follows a mother and son fleeing from Mexico to the US, has stirred controversy, with some questioning her right to write about others' experiences.
While Isabel Allende admitted she hadn’t read American Dirt, she joined the fray to vigorously defend the freedom of writers. ‘Does someone of a different colour feel differently? Of course they don’t!’
Her own experience as a refugee means no-one can question her credentials and it’s a theme that recurs in her most recent works.
A Long Petal of the Sea opens at the end of the Spanish Civil War when thousands of people fled to France to escape Franco’s fascist dictatorship. Having braved a perilous, bitterly cold journey across the Pyrenees, what greeted them in France was a far from warm welcome. They were housed in detention centres, where only their basic needs were met.
When their predicament came to the attention of the Chilean government, it commissioned the poet Pablo Neruda to send a rescue ship to transport them to Chile.
Allende had heard the story of the Spanish refugees as a child. After the military coup in Chile in 1973, when she herself was in exile in Venezuela 40 years ago, she met a remarkable man called Victor Pey. It was he who told her of the extraordinary voyage of the Winnipeg – the ship that took 2,200 Spanish refugees to Chile.
The story stayed with Allende until, she says, the plight of refugees in the world today meant it was a story that had to be told.
At the heart of A Long Petal of the Sea (opens in new tab) are Roser and Victor, whose lives come together in an extraordinary way. Victor is based on Victor Pey, who sadly died – at 103 – just six days before Allende’s manuscript reached his home.
Roser, who is pregnant marries Army doctor Victor, the brother of her lover who was killed in the war. Together these two incredibly courageous characters forge a life in Chile. From a marriage based on convenience and friendship, they discover a passion based on love.
Allende is drawn to strong people, those who not only survive but thrive against the odds. People, like herself, who make the best of difficult times. No stranger to adversity and loss, Isabel says, ‘You can’t control what happens to you but you can choose how you react.’
Love in later life is also something that’s echoed in her own life, having married for the third time last year at the age of 77.
When people ask me what it’s like to fall in love in older age, they seem amazed I can still talk in full sentences, let alone fall in love! It’s the same as falling in love at 18, but with a sense of urgency because there’s no time to waste. We may only have five years together, so we must use them wisely.’
Wise words indeed – take a leaf our of Isabel Allende’s book and, for time very well spent, treat yourself to A Long Petal of the Sea and make it your next book club book.
A Long Petal Of The Sea is out now. It's published by Bloomsbury, the RRP is £16.99
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