Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 17 May 2022 in Fiction |

ISABEL ALLENDE Violeta. Reviewed by Ann Skea

Tags: / / / / / / /

Isabel Allende’s latest novel recounts the life of a remarkable woman.

‘I came into the world on a stormy day in 1920, the year of the scourge.’

Violeta del Valle is now a hundred years old and she is writing her life story for her beloved grandson, Camilo, because, ‘when you are old and less busy you might want to remember me’. In a covering letter, she tells him that her life is ‘worthy of a novel, because of my sins more than my virtues’, and it becomes clear that she has lived through extraordinary events, personal as well as historical.

The scourge into which she was born was the Spanish flu pandemic, and she writes graphically of the horrible symptoms of the disease; the early way her country’s people responded to it by praying to Father Juan Quiroga (‘the only saint worth worshipping’); and how, when that failed, the government intervened with force, lockdowns and curfews.

Her father, who had been reading about the pandemic in other parts of the world, isolated his family, bought a Webley revolver (‘for his own protection’), and posted armed guards at the gates of the del Valle mansion. Camellia House, which her father and his ten siblings had inherited from their father, was in fact a neglected ruin her father was buying from his brothers ‘in small instalments’ – instalments that eventually went unpaid. 

Violeta writes vividly of her childhood as an only daughter, spoiled by her father; of her ailing mother; her favourite, protective brother, José Antonio; and of her two unmarried aunts – Pίa, a gifted herbalist whose fiancé had died and who regarded herself as a permanent widow, and Pilar, who had dreamed of climbing Mount Everest and cried when Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary beat her to it.

As Violeta grew older, her father hired a young Irish governess, Miss Josephine Taylor, who successfully tamed her tantrums and wilfulness, and introduced her to the Encyclopaedia dia Britannica, which enthralled her and became her main source of learning.  Miss Taylor also became the source of Violeta’s first knowledge of secret lesbianism, as she watched her growing attachment to the radical, cross-dressing feminist, Teresa Rivas.

Violeta’s father was a clever and adventurous businessman, good at choosing lucrative investments but bad at keeping track of his debts. When the Depression came and the stock market crashed, his debts caused the family’s downfall. He shot himself with his Webley revolver, and it was the 13-year-old Violeta who was the first to find his body. Years later, she sought the help of a psychiatrist, but:

I have never been able to muster the emotion that should correspond to seeing your father dead from a bullet wound. I don’t feel horror or sadness, nothing. I can describe what I saw, the emptiness and calm I felt, but nothing more.

So, the bailiffs move in, and the family goes into ‘exile’ on a distant country farm owned by Teresa Rivas’s uncle:

‘This is where civilization ends, Indian territory,’ the conductor told us, as we waited for Torito and José Antonio to unload our luggage at the Nahuel station.

Violeta’s account of her country life is full of fascinating detail about the indigenous people of this area. Teresa Rivas’s mother and father, Lucinda and Abel, are retired teachers who now travel the area voluntarily teaching basic skills to children in remote locations, and Violeta begins to accompany them. As they travel around, Lucinda also collects information about native plants, barks and medicinal herbs. She is especially friendly with a tribal healer, Yamina, who uses shamanic techniques, enchantments, and a drum that ‘belongs to the people’ (meaning her people alone). Yamina eventually uses her shamanic powers on members of Violeta’s own family, and Violeta records the ceremonies and drumming that help her dying mother pass peacefully to the next world. 

Violeta’s period of nomadic teaching partly ended when she was 14 and a native chief asked Abel for her hand in marriage ‘for himself or one of his sons’. Lucinda helped translate Abel’s careful response that Violeta had ‘a very bad temperament’ and was ‘already one of his wives’. He also declined to exchange her for another woman, as the chief then suggested.

Violeta’s life at Nahuel did not end until she was 20 and moved to Sacramento to join her brother in business. This move was prompted, in part, as a way of avoiding committing herself to marrying Fabian Schmidt-Engler (a young veterinary student from a local well-to-do German immigrant family) who had fallen deeply in love with her. She does eventually marry Fabian, knowing he would be boring but reliable, and he is ‘the ideal husband, never pestering or asking anything of me … a fine man’ but, she admits, she loved him but was never in love with him, and she was ‘good at fooling people with [her] act of submissive wife’. Yet, she managed to keep working with her brother, discovered that she had excellent business acuity, and made enough money to fund Fabian’s veterinary research project of artificial insemination in cattle, which bored her and which she deemed ‘terribly disrespectful to the cows’. 

The marriage ends with the sudden appearance of Julian Bravo, an adventurer and a pilot:

One day he fell out of the sky and into my life, his fame preceding him … He was a storybook hero.

He and Violeta begin a passionate affair and Violeta precipitously leaves Fabian. Julian moves in and out of Violeta’s life, always promising to marry her (although Fabian refuses to agree to an annulment) but he turns out to be an unreliable monster, working with criminals, doing clandestine work for the Mafia and the CIA, rejecting their son as ‘a coddled boy’, and destroying the life of their daughter, although he adores her. Of course they fight: ‘legendary fights, followed by an indecent reconciliation’. When Violeta finally acknowledges Julian’s true nature, she takes cunning and effective revenge.

This part of Violeta’s life plays out against a background of military coups in Chile and Argentina, both of which cause bloody oppression and horror that she cannot avoid seeing and being affected by, especially when her son is blacklisted for his political activities and is in danger of being arrested, tortured and ‘disappeared’, as happened to his close friend, Vania.

After Julian, there are other relationships, some unexpected, brief and friendly, and finally one that is calm and loving and long-lasting. Violeta’s story, however, is not just about her love life.

‘Remembering is my curse,’ she tells Camilo.

In an existence as long as mine, there have been some unexpected people and events and I’ve experienced the good fortune of not having had my mind fail me; unlike my poor battered body, my brain remains intact.

She remembers not only the dramatic events, loves and losses in her life but the ways in which society has changed, especially for women. When she left Fabian, divorce was impossible, and even if an annulment could be contrived, all she owned belonged to Fabian. Birth control and abortion, too, were banned, although Violeta describes how women got around these laws. Late in her life, she uses her money to set up a foundation to help women fight patriarchy.

Allende is a superb storyteller and Violeta’s account of her life is full of interest and interesting people. She has a dry sense of humour and knows just what Camilo will want to hear, including her comments on sexual pleasures. Even in her final days, living through the second pandemic of her life and facing her own death, she can’t help berating Camilo for the pranks, rebellion and misdemeanors of his early days, when she cared for him and he caused her so much worry and heartache. Finally, we hear more about Camilo and how he, too, was tamed.

Violeta, too, is a good storyteller. The personal traumas she experiences, her emotions, her determination and resilience, and the terrible times she suffered through, are keenly described. The only disadvantage of her epistolary style is that dramatic events become memories and lose some of the drama immediacy would give them. All in all, Violeta records a full, remarkable life, and her dying blessing for Camilo tails off in an image of love and beauty.

Isabel Allende Violeta Bloomsbury 2022 HB 336pp $34.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Violeta from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

Or check if this book is available from Newtown Library.

If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.