A Bittersweet Tribute to Magical Realism

House of Impossible LovesThe House of Impossible Loves
Author: Cristina López Barrio
Translator: Lisa Carter
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Boston, 2013
Review by Carla Martínez

Synopsis: “The Laguna women have borne a terrible curse for as long back as the family lineage can be traced: all have suffered from lovesickness and have given birth only to daughters who perpetuate their cruel inheritance. But when, after decades of forbidden passions and tragic loves, the first male Laguna is born, a door of hope opens up. Could this be the end of the curse?”

I bought this novel because of this encouraging blurb, promising forbidden loves, curses and a family saga. In principle, it had all the ingredients for me to like it. And indeed, I did  like it; it convinced me, albeit with certain qualifications.

The novel covers a very long period of time. The story begins in the late nineteenth century and continues through to the end of the second half of the twentieth. This means that in its 400 odd pages we meet several generations of the Laguna family. The pace is a little fast, as we learn the story of each Laguna woman and her tragic fate in this family that has been cursed for so many years. Each Laguna woman lives out a love story that will break her heart and produce but one daughter whose fate will be the same as her mother’s.

A long line of characters march through the pages of the book. Naturally, some appealed to me more than others, but if I had to choose one I would opt for Clara, the Laguna woman with golden eyes. She is not the protagonist and her story is over in the first 100 pages, but she is the one who captivated me most. Her vengeance, her relationship with her daughter and her unfinished business with the priest, Padre Imperio, could have been explored further. But we don’t linger over Clara’s story, as we will move on to meet her descendants. Next it’s Manuela’s turn, with her killing of chickens and her dressing up of insects. We watch Olvido grow up with her supernatural beauty and we bear witness to her love story with Esteban. We tiptoe through the story of Margarita and finally come to the birth of the longed-for male.

As you can see, there are characters for every taste in this novel. Each member of the Laguna family has her moment in the story, but the one who is given the most attention is Olvido, who in my opinion is the true protagonist of the novel. I had my problems with Olvido; I liked her on certain occasions, but on others I didn’t completely understand her. As a character she failed to win me over, but this is just a personal opinion, and I suspect that for most people who read this novel, Olvido will end up being their favourite Laguna.

Cristina López Barrio’s narrative style is highly poetic, filled with metaphors and comparisons. Great importance is given to nature, to smells and flavours, and there is always room for magic. It is a novel with shades of magical realism that recalls the works of Isabel Allende, and I think it is evident that the author has been greatly inspired by The House of the Spirits. The titles of the two books are similar and there are even characters with the same names. This is not at all a problem for me, as I think it is more a kind of tribute to Allende’s classic novel than anything else. And in any case, apart from these similarities, the stories take quite different paths.

Right up to the last section of the novel, I was ready to give the book a higher grade than it took in the end. But I was let down considerably by the story of the Laguna male. Santiago is a character who lacks the magic of the women in his family, and he struck me as rather tiresome. Towards the end I realized I was reading for no reason other than to finish off the few pages that I had left. Unfortunately, I just didn’t find this last section completely convincing. Nevertheless, the end of the book, which has something of the quality of a roller coaster ride, ultimately succeeded in pulling a few heartstrings.

The House of Impossible Loves is not a novel that I would recommend without reservations, but in spite of a certain bitter aftertaste towards the end it was able to keep me hooked and entertained. And thanks to the fine prose of Cristina López Barrio, it is a book that can be enjoyed with all five senses.

Review translated by Martin Boyd.

Carla Martínez is a writer and blogger based in Tenerife on the Canary Islands. Her blog “Confesiones de una librófila” (in Spanish) offers a wealth of reviews of works of fiction.

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