For February’s book of the month, we take a closer look at Chilean author Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, a lyrical and fantastical tale that manages to feel like magical realism without ever needing to use magic.
Based in an unnamed Latin American nation, the story begins just before the narrator Eva Luna is born, and is told from her omniscient perspective. Her lusciously red-headed mother Consuelo conceives Eva Luna on the deathbed of her father, a wounded man to whom Consuelo hopes to bring a few final moments of ecstasy before his passing.
Eva Luna’s life begins in a haze of childhood innocence. Her mother works as a live-in servant for an eccentric European professor obsessed with embalming the dead. Despite the morbid surroundings, Consuelo shields Eva Luna from all of life’s hardships, especially through the use of her storytelling.
“She reduced me to the size of an ant so I could experience the universe from that smallness; she gave me wings to see it from the heavens; she gave me the tail of a fish so I would know the depths of the sea,” Allende writes.
A knack for crafting stories becomes a talent that sticks with Eva Luna and gets her out of handfuls of sticky situations in the future. Moreover, Eva Luna’s views on storytelling could be seen to reflect Allende’s own views on the craft.
“[Consuelo] manufactured the substance of her own dreams, and from those materials constructed a world for me. Words are free, she used to say,” Allende writes in Eva Luna. “She sowed in my mind the idea that reality is not only what we see on the surface; it has a magical dimension as well and, if we so desire, it is legitimate to enhance it and color it to make our journey through life less trying.”
The Fall from Innocence
While Eva Luna’s life begins untroubled, Consuelo dies suddenly after choking on a chicken bone, thrusting a young Eva Luna into orphan-hood.
From here, the reader follows Eva Luna’s turbulent path, celebrating with her when she finds safe haven, but on their edge of their seat knowing that some treacherous turn will project her once again into the abyss.
Eva Luna is resilient and imaginative despite constant uncertainty and hardship. Unruly and defiant, Eva Luna’s unbridled pride makes her ill suited to the life of a servant girl. The reader looks on with anguished entanglements of excitement and worry as Eva Luna dumps a chamber pot filled with her master’s stool over his glistening head, or when she rips off her mistresses wig and runs away with it, finally deserting it in a gutter.
Besides the account of the life of one girl, Allende manages to capture the color and history of Latin America. A true melting-pot, the characters Eva Luna meet on her tumultuous trajectory paint a rich and multifarious mirage of post-colonial Latin America.
The kind-hearted Turkish traveling merchant and his gelatinous wife, the delicate pale-faced Italian transvestite, and the big-bosomed, religious mulatto are just a few of the many characters that shape Eva Luna’s experience. Together they coagulate to form a vibrant vision of Latin America as a land of diverse Native American, African, European, and Middle Eastern roots.
All in all, Eva Luna is a triumphant account of womanhood, of finding love and friendship in unlikely and unanticipated places, and of a girl coming to age in a land that also struggles to find its footing.
By Gwynne Hogan