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Cheat Sheet: Isabel Allende

Why you should know Isabel Allende – the “literary legend” whose books have defined a genre and a generation.

Katie Hryce
Sydney Opera House

Leonine soul

Born August 2nd, 1942, Isabel Allende is a Leo.

Political roots

Allende is no stranger to the political sphere. Her father’s cousin was Salvador Allende, the first socialist president of Chile, who was in power from 1970 to 1973. Her father, a diplomat by trade, abandoned the family when she was three years old. 

When Augusto Pinochet seized power in a bloody military coup, the young Isabel fled to Venezuela, where she began her writing career. Her work is inspired by her family history, folk tales and dreams.


“This picture of me was taken in l973, the year of the military coup in Chile. It was very hard time in my life.” Source: http://www.isabelallende.com/

Spirited away

Allende’s debut novel, The House of the Spirits, became a worldwide smash and a key work in the literary tradition of magical realism, a technique whereby fantastical and supernatural elements are normalised across narrative, setting and characters. It was inspired by stories and memories of her grandfather.

Published in 1982 when Allende was 39, the book traces the Trueba family through generations and decades of beautifully interwoven personal tales set against political and social upheaval of an unnamed country; understood to be a thinly veiled Chile. 

The epic novel is adored, often seen as a gateway to more magical realist works by the likes of Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. A film version was made in 1993 starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder and Antonia Banderas, but it was widely panned and a box office bomb. We recommend this for true devotees (or haters) only.  

True to superstitious form, Allende has since begun writing each of her books on the same day she began The House of the Spirits – January 8th.

Woman of letters

Allende is one of the most heralded authors of the twentieth century, and has been a particular force and guiding light for female writers across the Spanish and English speaking worlds, and beyond. 

She has written 20 novels and published several works of non-fiction, including a memoir, all translated into many languages and published across the world. Allende’s awards include Chilean National Prize for Literature (2010), Presidential Medal of Freedom (2014) and National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (2018). 

Notably, the female protagonists and supporting characters in her work paint a meaningful and complex picture of the female experience. These women, often from the same family or connected in some way, can always be counted on to feel passion; follow fate; seethe with rage; and make magic. Unconfined by gender, geography and germane thinking, Allende’s characters are always memorable for readers, leaving deep impressions as the pages of their tumultuous lives are turned. 

The natural and supernatural life force that is Clara del Valle in The House of the Spirits springs first to mind here but the self-knowing amor fati of Eliza Sommers in Daughter of Fortune (said to be an alternate universe imprint of Allende herself) and Eva Luna from the 1987 novel of the same name, a roguish Scheherezade-style figure with Latin American flair, are equally unforgettable.


Barack Obama awards Isabel Allende the presidential medal of freedom in 2014. Source: The Guardian

Essential reading

Catch Isabel Allende in her talk, ‘The Soul of a Woman’, only at All About Women this March.

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