Originally published in Spain as De amor y de sombra in 1984, Of Love and Shadows continues the interest of Isabel Allende (1942– ) in both transcendent romantic love and devastating social oppression. The first of her novels written after The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows draws on Allende’s own experiences as a journalist and a civilian living under a military dictatorship. The book also recounts a historical event, the actual discovery in 1978 of 15 bodies of murdered peasants. The peasants had been killed in 1973, the year the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte assumed power in Chile.
The military coup’s seizure of power provided Allende with the topic and theme for the work that followed the acclaimed The House of the Spirits. In many ways, Of Love and Shadows is a tighter novel than its successful predecessor; it definitely transpires over a shorter period of time and delves less into family history than The House of the Spirits. The novel also revolves around a single event: the discovery of the massacred bodies, rather than the many interwoven stories of generations of a family. Of Love and Shadows also contains fewer magical elements than The House of the Spirits; the realistic portrayal of the brutality of the military regime mitigates the appeal of the relatively benign magic and supernatural forces of Allende’s first novel. Indeed, what magical events that do appear in Of Love and Shadows take on one of two forms: violence or passion.
But Of Love and Shadows also suggests Allende’s developing strengths as a novelist. Her two main characters, Irene Beltrán and Francisco Leal, exist in a richly colored world of prostitutes and military officers, passionate love and lethal violence. Allende has also created another strange “house”: The Will of God Manor, the home Irene shares with her mother—and the quixotic, diverse group of old people whose rent provides the only income Irene’s mother can accept with dignity. Allende also traces the central event of the novel, Irene and Francisco’s discovery of the bodies, through an intricate series of seemingly unrelated events, beginning with the unfortunate switching of two babies in a hospital. The children’s pragmatic mothers decide to keep their switched offspring and raise them as their own, naming both Evangelina. Although both mothers love their adopted daughters, the children grow up to experience vastly different fates.
One Evangelina, the victim of her adopted brother’s incestuous desire, grows up an almost ethereal creature, beautiful but tainted, with a carnal awareness unnatural to her seeming innocence. She begins to have fits, enacting sexual positions and expressions each time, and soon gains the reputation of saintliness. Unfortunately, Evangelina also attracts the attention of her brother’s commanding officer, who attempts to “cure” her by surrounding the house with his men and firing weapons. The frail young girl in her possessed state bodily lifts the man and removes him from the premises. Later, she is neither so lucky nor so strong; he drags her screaming from her home, and she “disappears,” presumably having been raped and killed.
Irene and Francisco, present when Evangelina trounces the military officer, do not simply stumble upon the mine containing the multiple bodies, but rather are led to it by an elaborate series of events. Irene, a young, idealistic, naive journalist, and Francisco, her photographer, discover that Evangelina has disappeared. Both attempt to find her, searching through their contacts with the military and the morgue, but they find no trace of the young girl. In the process, Irene thoroughly loses her innocence and her enchantment with the world around her. Engaged to a military officer Francisco spitefully thinks of as “the Bridegroom of Death,” Irene falls in love with Francisco instead. Irene and Francisco succeed in tracing Evangelina’s brother, who has deserted the army, and from him they learn of his incestuous love for Evangelina. Another officer, with ties to Evangelina’s family, eventually confesses what he believes to be the rest of the story. Having learned the probable location of Evangelina’s body from her brother, Irene and Francisco explore—and eventually discover more than they had bargained for—an entire burial ground or mass grave. Through Francisco’s connection with the Catholic Church, they leak the secret—and it explodes in the faces of government officials.
Unfortunately, the story also affects Irene as well; she is literally gunned down in the street. Despite the gravity of her injuries, Irene does not die. She and Francisco are then forced to flee their country. The book ends with the repeated words “we will return,” suggesting that their exile is not permanent and that the terrible military dictatorship cannot last forever. True to the novel’s title, the story revolves around both love and shadows, and the two seeming opposites are closely linked. Irene and Francisco make love after having found the pitiful remains of Evangelina’s body. It is also Francisco’s steadfast love and protection that saves Irene after she is shot. His presence brings her comfort and his connections are instrumental in smuggling them out of the country.
The political commentary in the novel rings with obvious implications. It critiques both the horrors of a power-mad military dictatorship, one closely similar to Pinochet’s rule in Chile, and the willful ignorance of citizens who remain blind to the abuses of that government. Although Irene herself chooses to oppose military authority, her mother remains blind, believing that everything is fine and the government is benevolent and just. Though Irene and Francisco must leave their home and their families to save their lives, the novel ends on a hopeful note. The two have found love and passion in the midst of death and oppression. They have also overcome the lethal threat of the military. Ultimately they are together. And eventually Irene and Francisco will return, bringing with them a better future for themselves, their families, and their country.
Correas Zapata, Celia. Isabel Allende: Life and Spirits. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2002.
Rojas, Sonia Riquelme, and Edna Aguirre Rehbein. Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende’s Novels. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.