Queen in Shining Armor
Inés of My SoulIsabel Allende
(HarperCollins · hardcover · $25.95)
France had Marie Antoinette, England Queen Elizabeth. But in the pantheon of great female leaders from history, Doña Inés Suárez of Chile might have been the most adventuresome of all. Born in Plascencia, Spain, in 1507, she came to the Americas at the age of 30 looking for a lost husband, who was lured to the New World in search of false gold. Inés never found him, but stumbled into the arms of Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conqueror of Chile.
It's hard to fathom how rough those years must have been for Inés—surrounded by a hostile culture and climate, the creeper vine of mutiny (not to mention lust) growing within Valdivia's men. Isabel Allende brings us part of the way there in her action-packed new novel, Inés of My Soul, which tells the first female conquistador's story in her own words. Unfortunately, Allende makes one too many encyclopedic detours for this to stand out as one of her best fictions.
This is a shame, as Inés led a lively, raucous and important life, and Allende has given her an instantly appealing voice. Within the first two or three paragraphs even the most unpliable reader will be hooked. Narrating from her 70s, time clearly running out, Allende's heroine looks back on her years. She reminisces about mens' wanton desire for fame with the wizened disappointment of a woman who has seen it all and yet hoped for something better.
This tone we soon learn is the result of much traveling and danger. Sifting through her memories, Inés recalls how she journeyed to the Americas by boat, fighting off drunken sailors and scurvy, thinking all along her husband was not far away. After she discovered he had in fact died, she hooks up with Valdivia and is quickly conscripted into the role of nurse, lover and occasional soldier.
Valdivia may have been a vainglorious man, but Allende paints him as an egalitarian first—and in some ways, he had to be. The Spanish numbers diminished every year as resistance from Chilean Indians grew. Inés spends so much time on horseback she abandons the sidesaddle and procures men's breaches and boots. Valdivia helps her get armor, too.
The history of the conquistadors in Latin America is a squalid affair, full of plunder, rape and forced conversion. Allende never attempts to explain this, but she imbues Inés with a great deal of guilt (even before she takes part in a gruesome act of war in 1541 that she hoped would save Santiago from Indians).
While men go off to fight, Inés makes it her mission to build "hospitals, churches, chapels, sanctuaries—entire towns and if I live long enough, there will be a badly needed orphanage in Santiago." The perils and moral responsibilities of occupation have hardly changed in five centuries.
When she is not explaining her own actions, though, Inés has the unfortunate tendency to outline history. "All this was happening in the Americas, while in Spain Charles V was promulgating the Leyes Nuevas," she says in one section. "I haven't mentioned the maize, or 'Indian wheat,' without which we could never have survived," she instructs in another. "Maize was so easy to cultivate, and the crop so abundant, that it fed Indians—and Spaniards as well—throughout the New World."
These momentary lapses into an encyclopedic tone would hardly be noticeable were Allende not such a natural storyteller. As a result, the book has choppy feel, a syncopation that feels born out the author's rather than the narrator's attempts to retrieve history. "The research for this novel took four years of avid reading," Allende writes in her afterward, adding that the "feats of Inés Suarez ... were nearly ignored by historians for more than four hundred years." This book might change this fact; if only Allende had trusted us to learn that history from Inés herself.