Isabel Allende is in a fiery mood, lambasting the traditional bias of history books. "When you learn about the Spanish conquest of the New World, all you read about is the conquistadors," she says sharply. "Our history is recited from a purely male perspective. There were women and children, both Spanish and Indian. And yet their voices are nowhere to be heard." Latin America's most widely read female author hopes to tip that balance with her new book.
"Inés of my Soul" ( HarperCollins, 321 pages) fictionalizes the story of real-life Spanish conquistadora Doña Inés Suárez, a visionary architect of the nation of Chile. "Inés is one of the very few women that are mentioned in history books in Chile and even then she is mentioned between the lines," says Allende, 64, a native of Chile. "More than a warrior and an adventurer, she was a founding mother. She built the city of Santiago, guarded it, planted trees, dug wells, founded hospitals and businesses, and fed the poor. But because she wasn't married to her lover, and because she was an ambitious and clever woman, she was considered dangerous by many in her time." Allende asks: "Doesn't that sound familiar?"
In a powerfully evocative narrative, Allende's tenth novel transports the reader back to Spain's 16th-century conquest of South America. Inés is a 70-year-old grandmother, whose "soul and heart are still caught in the fissure of youth," Allende writes. She decides to bear final testimony to her extraordinary life by writing her memoirs. Following her humble beginnings in the Spain of the Inquisition, Inés marries a philanderer whom she eventually follows across the Atlantic--only to discover that she has been widowed. But she refuses to turn back. "What seduces me particularly about Inés is her refusal of oppression in any form," says Allende. "She won't stay where she is supposed to and she refuses to become a widow under a dark veil."
Instead Inés marches on, swinging her hips with the allure of a gypsy, captivating men everywhere with her indomitable character and earthly warmth. Her dabbling in fortune-telling and her ability to locate water in the most arid of deserts make her seem magical, almost witchlike. She exudes a raw energy and strength of character from which lesser men might flee. But Pedro de Valdivia, His Royal Highness' valiant conquistador, legendary warrior and pure-blooded nobleman, is spellbound. Thus begins an epic love affair. By Pedro's side, Inés leads Spanish troops in the conquest of Chile--"the cemetery of the Spaniards"--establishes the city of Santiago and defends it from the fierce attacks of Indians, giving birth to a new nation.
Allende spent four years researching the novel, studying historical texts, works of fiction and academic articles to fully immerse herself in the period. Her book recounts the historical era in fine detail. Her commentary on the political motivations of the conquistadors and their bloody conflict against the Indians is insightful, and she describes the characteristics of both the Spanish and the indigenous civilizations deftly.
But this book is not merely an intelligent work of documentation; it's also an alluring, occasionally raunchy, page-turner of a novel. In language that oozes sensuality, we learn of the ecstasy and deception that Inés tastes at the hands of men she loves. Allende is at her best here, spinning words like spells, enthralling the reader with surreal visions of the New World. The sun is relentless and the sea is turquoise. The hilltop cities are enveloped in vapor, and the warm, humid air infused with the intoxicating aroma of earth and sweat. "Everything is more intense, she writes. "Colour, aromas, tastes--even the flowers, with their seductive fragrances, and the fruit, warm and fleshy, provoke lust."
In a culture saturated with patriarchal references, Allende writes about the vitality of female energy with conviction and muscle. "The world is full of women whose souls have been broken--through violence, mutilation, slavery, forced marriage, prostitution and countless forms of abuse," she says. "And yet what sustains the world is the love of women, the incredible patience of women and their resiliency. Inés incarnates all this." In the brutal world of the Spanish conquest, where men used their might and strength to conquer, capture and consume, Allende inspires women everywhere with the true story of one who wouldn't be tamed, who knew her own power and lived to taste its glory.