This book falls into in the category of magical realism by most accounts, but I didn’t see a lot of that, especially compared to Marquez or Rushdie, for example. Instead, the stories told are better characterized as fantastic, amazing, improbable, and highly imaginative.
The young woman, Eva Luna, whose life story this is, escapes from a burning whorehouse, where she has been raised by an eccentric madam, and ultimately is rescued by a kindly Turkish merchant with a harelip. All this takes place in an unnamed South American country, probably Venezuela. The reader thinks, okay, that could happen; nothing magical about it, but it doesn’t seem very likely. On the other hand, such episodes are colorful and fun to read.
There are four or five events that could be construed as magical, such as an old man’s invention of a permanent embalming fluid that makes corpses look as alive as they ever were, forever. But given the narrator’s florid and imaginative storytelling style, we could just as well mark that description down to exaggeration as magic.
As Eva Luna grows up, she discovers she is a hypnotic storyteller, a modern-day Scheherazade. Like that archetypal storyteller, she is able to trade her gift for the goods, services, and companions that sustain her. She learns to read and write (in several languages) and eventually becomes a compelling author. Improbable for an uneducated servant girl? Yes. Magical? Not literally.
Allende, like her character Eva, is a master storyteller and this book is like a collection of short stories loosely knit together. There is no strong plot line. Eva just bumps along from one incredible circumstance to another, as with life for anyone, perhaps. She discovers her sexuality and falls deeply in love with almost every man she meets. For a while she gets involved with a band of revolutionary guerillas, but all is well in the end.
I enjoyed the book for the lush prose, and for the interesting narration. The book is 90% narrative exposition and only 10% dramatic pageantry. There is very little dialog. By definition, that should be boring, and it does create problems. Characters feel distant, cartoony, and unreal, even Eva, because we rarely see them behave and speak. Instead, we are simply told by the narrator what they think, feel, and have been doing lately. The craft of that telling is skilled, but it is still a matter of the narrator declaring things to be true, with no opportunity for the reader to see for him or herself.
Eva is the narrator for about half the book, an anonymous, omniscient narrator for the rest. Even when Eva is narrating, she describes many things that she couldn’t possibly know, such as events that happened in her absence. The net effect of this relentless exposition is literary distance between the readers and the characters, and even distance from the events described. The book as a whole then leaves you with the feeling that you have heard a fabulous fairy tale, one that is a lot of fun, but not a tale you would consider seriously.
Allende, Isabel (1988/2005). Eva Luna. New York: Dial Press (307 pp.).