Isabel Allende is mostly a well-respected name to me; I had only read her Daughter of Fortune before this one, and found it interesting and enjoyable, but it doesn’t seem to stand out in my memory. (It’s been years.) I picked up Inés of My Soul as I pick up at least half my audiobooks: opportunistically. Because audio is not as plentiful as hardcopy, I take what I can find, in the library or from friends & family. This one came from my mother, and I’m glad I happened upon it, because I found it fascinating and entertaining.
Inés of My Soul is the story of the founding of Chile, told first-person by Inés de Suárez, a real historical figure; or perhaps more accurately it is the life story of Inés, inextricably tied with the founding of Chile, which she (at least in the novel) considers her life’s work. This is a work of historical fiction; Inés really lived but we don’t know everything about her, so Allende necessarily fills in the gaps.
Inés was born in Extremadura, in Spain, in 1507. She married Juan de Mélaga for love (or for lust), but their marriage was troubled; their fiery sexual passion also led to fierce fights, and they failed to conceive the child Inés wanted, and Juan eventually sailed for the New World in search of gold and fortune. She follows, not out of love for her husband – that was mostly dead – but because, as a “widow of the New World,” her horizons in Extremadura were extremely limited, and she sought adventure just as Juan did. Inés travels around Peru, making her living as she did in Spain: sewing clothes and cooking her famous empanadas, which she is careful to provide to the hungry as well as her paying customers. After learning that Juan is dead, she is plagued by men who desire her, and who intend to have her by any means, with or without her consent; and she picks up a housekeeper who will become a lifelong friend & helpmate, Catalina, an Indian woman skilled in healing and with the power to see the future. Catalina foretells an important man to come into Inés’s life and recognizes him when he does: Pedro de Valdivia, a fellow native of Extremadura and a soldier from a long line of soldiers. Their relationship is full of fire and chemistry, as was her initial time with Juan de Mélaga, but will mature into a deeply loving and cooperative partnership. They will never marry, because Pedro has a wife, Marina, back in Spain, and all three are Catholic.
Pedro and Inés travel together to Chile, an area still unconquered by Europeans and especially intimidating because of an earlier failed attempt. They have a small but mostly loyal cadre of soldiers with them and intend to be the founders of a new country there. As partners they fight the Indians and establish the city of Santiago and several more small towns; they live through good times and bad. There is a fascinating subplot involving a young Indian boy who joins their settlement, which I will leave mostly untouched for the sake of spoilers. After ten years of loving cohabitation, during which Inés contributes substantially to the successful founding of Santiago, even in combat against the Indians, Pedro throws her aside. He has grown from the strong & cooperative man she loved into an aging, arrogant, cruel, unhealthy ruler, but his rejection still hurts. Inés then takes a second husband: Rodrigo de Quiroga, a captain in Pedro’s army and a good man with whom she finds another beautifully healthy and loving relationship, also raising his daughter Isabel, to whom this story is narrated.
Inés of My Soul is the diary of an elderly Inés who wants to record her fascinating and important life for the sake of posterity. She is sad that she never conceived a child, but loves her stepdaughter very much and chides her lovingly throughout this narration. She writes more than half of it herself, but by the end is dictating to Isabel, as her age catches up with her; she says she sees death coming very soon, and is not sad, as she looks forward to joining Rodrigo, her final love of 30 years, recently dead.
Again, this is a story of the conquest and founding of Chile, complete with scenes of battle, heroism, victory, glory, and gold. There is plenty of statement on the evils of colonialism: Inés praises the natives of Chile, respects their choice to fight to the death rather than be enslaved, and notes their strengths. She also laments the unnecessary cruelties of the conquerors, including her Pedro. But it is also very much a love story. Inés has three loves in her life, and I think she is lucky (and considers herself so) to have shared passions with three very different men. While not terribly explicit, there is sex, told in an appropriately heated, sensual tone, with some acknowledgment of Isabel’s presumed discomfort where her father is concerned. (Inés also offers to give Isabel advice, in case the latter’s husband proves overly eager or otherwise fails to give pleasure.)
There are obvious links to Like Water for Chocolate, in the fiery, sensual telling of lust, passion, and fine food in the voice of a strong Latina woman, and in Inés’s implicit feminism when she declares her own place in history and her substantial contributions to the new country of Chile. This is an engrossing tale of a woman’s life, and a country’s birth, intertwined. I loved both Inés – a passionate and strong woman – and the history of Chile. Having grown up in mid-south Texas, I have long had an appreciation of Spanish-speaking cultures; I am most familiar with Mexico but have always been interested in traveling further south too. Chile was on my list – it’s so far away and therefore feels exotic and remote – but now it’s an even higher priority. And reading this fictionalized history of the founding of conquered Chile makes me more interested in its history, too. I did do a little Wikipedia reading on Inés de Suárez, the historical figure, enough to know that she was indeed lover to Pedro de Valdivia and involved in the conquest.
Finally, I cannot stress enough the pleasurable experience of listening to this narrator, Blair Brown, tell this story in a musical, lyrical, emotive, accented voice; there is no other way to enjoy it. Allende renders nuanced, very real characters in a lovely tone (aside from the lovely reading Brown gives); she makes a bloody history of conquest appropriately ambiguous; and the remarkable achievement of blending love and passion with war and subjugation is riveting. I highly recommend this story, and I highly recommend Brown’s reading of it.
Rating: 9 empanadas.
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