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Allende tells a passionate, bloody tale amid conquest of Chile

Isabel Allende's "Ines of My Soul" (HarperCollins, 2006) fictionalizes the real life of Ines Suarez, a ferocious, sexy woman who helped the Spanish colonize Chile in the 1500s. Her story is passionate and bloody.

"This novel is a work of intuition," according to the Author's Note, "but any similarity to events and persons relating to the conquest of Chile is not coincidental."

Allende found an interesting, long-ignored heroine and built a story around the few known facts. The story is narrated in Inés' voice: "The line that divides reality from imagination is very thin, and at my age is no longer interesting, for now everything is subjective."

Acclaimed author Allende delivers a good read. This is one of her best works, if you don't mind detailed and repeated accounts of people getting their hands, heads and so forth chopped off. The Spanish conquest of Chile was bloody and gruesome. Allende does not spare the details.

Understanding that cruelty begets cruelty, Allende tells of atrocities on the part of the natives, the Mapuche, as well as the Spanish conquistadores. The Mapuche return atrocity for atrocity, and the Spanish continue the vicious circle.

"One began killing as a duty and ended up using violence as a way to satisfy one's penchant for cruelty," she writes.

Around the battles, Allende weaves a story of passionate romances. In this imagined account, Inés had three loves: her first husband, her lover and her second husband. The first husband is annoying, handsome and wise in the ways of love - he teaches Inés the joys of passion.

The story begins in Spain, from which her first husband departs to the New World. Inés follows him, only to learn he has died. Tough-minded and brave, she stays in Peru alone. She soon meets Pedro de Valdivia, who would become the conqueror and first Spanish governor of Chile. She travels with him on an epic adventure. Inés is not along for decoration. She cooks, tends to the wounded, finds water in the desert and fights valiantly, even heroically, in some of the battles. When their passionate romance cools and is forbidden by the church, Inés marries her third love.

Allende, who grew up in Chile, describes its "gentle hills, fragrant forests, fertile valleys, bounteous rivers and a climate more pleasant than any in Spain or anywhere else I know," through Inés.

Character Padre Gregorio says, "But it is a paradise only in appearance, Señora Inés. In a hot, swampy, voracious world infested with reptiles and poisonous insects, things decay very quickly, especially the soul. The jungle transforms men into rogues and murderers."

Recalling the warnings she received, Inés responds, "I tried not to think about any of that because it would have paralyzed me with fright. … It makes no sense to suffer in advance a misfortune that may never occur."

"Inés of My Soul" is available at the Los Altos Library, Books Inc. and Kepler's in Menlo Park.

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