Paula is the name of Isabel Allende’s daughter; a remarkable young woman who was diagnosed with the genetic disease porphyria, and fell into a coma in 1991. Allende’s book is multi-faceted; part-memoir, part-homage, part-history, part-letter, part-novel. Paula is a book that made me feel extremely sad but there are elements of hope and ambition that are also amazingly up-lifting. There are two sections of this book (it is a difficult book to classify, it is neither fiction nor non-fiction); one section deals primarily with Paula Allende’s treatment in Madrid, when Isabel Allende still had some semblance of hope, and the later section deals more directly with impending death and the ways in which Allende’s family dealt with the coming tragedy.
In a book that shows off the best of Allende’s talent we read the story of her family, of her life and of her career. If you have read The House of the Spirits you will certainly recognise characters and storylines, but what really shines through in this book is Allende’s journalistic talent, her control of language, and her eye for detail. In some
sections of this work I felt a real affinity to her daughter and empathy with Paula’s family because of the emotion put into the writing. As you read this book you will understand where the characters from Allende’s other works stem from – you can link her grandfather, about whom she writes extensively, to the patriarchs of her novels; you can see the similarities between Allende’s life and that of Eva Luna, the titular character of her fourth novel.
Isabel Allende tells of her own life in amazing detail. This is a personal book in so many ways, it is almost odd to be reading so much about one relationship. I felt that Allende was writing this not only as a letter to her daughter, it is also a way for her to combat some of her own past. In one memory Allende opens up about sexual abuse that she suffered as a child; it is dealt with in a manner that tells of a discovery of sexuality, pleasure and fear. Her retelling of this situation is above all a memory of her feelings, not a call for justice or political statement about sexual abuse. In another memory, Allende tells of hiding people in Pinochet’s Chile and helping people flee the dictatorship, before herself leaving. Again she doesn’t ask for the readers sympathies, rather she explains her feelings and the necessity to help.
Allende’s book is a fine homage to her daughter, it tells her story and that of her family, yet I feel the real power of this book is Isabel Allende herself. She didn’t write this novel asking for pity, she merely wants to remember her daughter, and I feel that writing this helped her cope and comforted her at one of her darkest points.