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‘The Soul of a Woman’ review: A soulless attempt to challenge gender stereotypes

Are you happy being a woman? When Isabel Allende posed this question to some of her female friends and acquaintances, they responded that they embraced womanhood, unlike Sylvia Plath who said that her most awful tragedy was to be a woman. The reasons they gave though were trite generalisations: they said they have more empathy and solidarity than men; they aim to nurture, not destroy; and they are happy to express, not suppress, their emotions.

In The Soul of a Woman, part memoir and part introduction to feminism, Allende challenges, as she has done for years, these age-old stereotypes that refuse to die. “Have you noticed that individualism and selfishness are considered positive traits in men and defects in women,” she asks. “[Sexual abuse] didn’t happen to her because she was pretty; it happened simply because she was female,” she writes about a young woman’s experience.

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Unconventional life

Allende has lived an unconventional life. She became “a feminist in kindergarten” when her father abandoned her mother Panchita in Peru, forcing the family to return to her grandparents’ home in Chile, where machismo thrived. Allende bristled at the treatment of her mother and the housemaids. Her daughter’s rebellious nature worried Panchita so much that she consulted doctors about it. Allende’s “visceral reaction to male chauvinism” led her to co-found and work at a feminist magazine called Paula, which questioned domestic violence even while organising beauty pageants.

Allende recalls some traumatic incidents in her life that have shaped her beliefs as well as the strong female characters in her books. Six decades ago, she helped her 15-year-old friend Celina get an abortion, which is illegal in Chile. It was a messy, bloody affair. Strongly advocating for abortion to be decriminalised, she writes that “control over one’s fertility is a human right.” In Rajasthan, in the 90s, while driving down a deserted roadside, Allende came across some poor women who handed over a parcel of rags to her. She unwrapped it and discovered to her horror that the women had tried to get rid of a girl child.

“She has appeared in my dreams for years,” she writes of the little girl. “I dream that she has had a miserable life, I dream that she died young. I dream that she is my daughter or my granddaughter.”

It was the abiding memory of that trip that pushed her to create the Isabel Allende Foundation.

Poor definition

In the book’s broad sweep, Allende addresses briefly violence against women, abortion, sexuality, vanity, and economic independence. But she remains unfocused. She ruminates for pages on old age and euthanasia. She provides a list of the secrets of a full and happy life. She talks about erotic passion. And she also quotes horrifying statistics on rape and domestic violence from around the world. The discordant observations, memories and statistics make this otherwise gifted writer’s work disappointing, even pedestrian. “My definition of feminism is not what we have between our legs but what we have between our ears,” she writes. Surely a feminist of her stature would have a better definition?

Allende has lived a fascinating life. When her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, the elected President of Chile, was overthrown by a military coup led by General Pinochet, she was blacklisted as a journalist and forced to flee the country to Venezuela. It was there that she wrote her brilliant debut, The House of the Spirits, first conceived as a letter to her dying grandfather. The book catapulted her into the literary world and was followed by many other successful novels. She has won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Given her enormous success as a writer, The Soul of a Woman comes as a surprise. It truly leaves much to be desired.

The Soul of a Woman; Isabel Allende, Bloomsbury, ₹699.

radhika.s@thehindu.co.in


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