Other than a negative general impression, I remember exactly two things about Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits from our AP English class. I remember the following subordinate clause: “When the twins were born under the watchful eye of the decapitated head of the grandmother” paired with the image of that head teetering somewhat precariously on a mantlepiece. And I remember that a girl in our class told Fr. Murphy that the book had given her nightmares, and he got extremely upset and told her that she was excused from reading the rest of the book. (Among his many memorable qualities, Fr. Murphy was one of the most emotionally sensitive human beings I had ever met. At the time, I had only the vaguest idea of what “multiple intelligences” were and had no idea that there are people who process the world primarily through the lens of their emotions.)
At the time, I just thought Nightmares are considered a reasonable excuse to get out of reading a book? Well, GOSH.
I can say, though, that unless my mind was totally and completely checked out, no one ever explained to us back then what magic realism is and what it’s for. Many years later, a grad school professor explained that in true magic realism “extraordinary events are treated as mundane and mundane events are treated as extraordinary,” providing two examples from One Hundred Years of Solitude: a bodily ascention into heaven that is described as if it were an ordinary occurrence and the arrival of a train that is described as “a kitchen pulling a city.” Among other things, the effect of magic realism should be to blur the lines between extraordinary and mundane and cause us to question the nature of all characters, imagery, and events in a work of literature.
At seventeen, I just thought it was damn weird. And not worth reading. I was a harsh judge in 1993, mainly because I had never failed at anything important and therefore thought I was qualified to judge and condemn others. But I am looking forward to reading it again with new eyes.
Jill and I decided to reread one of our AP English books per month until we finish the syllabus of approximately 18 books. The House of the Spirits is our selection for June. I probably won’t start reading until I am back at home from visiting my family (where I am right now). Please feel free to read the book along with us and join in the discussion in the comments section!
But if you have nightmares, you’re on your own.