Isabel Allende has too often been lazily claimed as a magic realist but, in truth, her work defies classification. Allende herself has said that she merely wants to write "realistic literature", whatever that means. In fact, the engine of much of her fiction is the notion that people may move through the same physical space yet really inhabit different realities. Her absorbing new novel, Daughter of Fortune, is resolutely realistic, although there are always intimations of the transcendent.
The setting here is the Chilean port of Valparaiso in the 1830s, where the growing British colony has established a nation within a nation, with its clubs, afternoon teas and sedate musical evenings. Into this prospering world comes Eliza, abandoned at birth and of unknown parentage, who is adopted by an English family and brought up as an English lady. An independent spirit, Eliza struggles to adapt to the formalities of her routine and escapes whenever she can to the easy warmth and acceptance of the Indian cook through whom she absorbs something of the very different legends and traditions of Chilean culture.
The corsets Eliza is forced to wear constrict her body and the rigid expectations of her adopted English family constrict her spirit. The threat of the foundling home, if she misbehaves, is never far away. At 16, the precarious balance of her life is destroyed when she falls in love. Her suitor is from the wrong social class and ethnic background and so the affair must remain secret.
When news filters down to Chile that gold has been discovered in the mountains of California, Eliza's lover escapes to seek his fortune, leaving her behind, pregnant and unhappy. With little future in Valparaiso, Eliza embarks on a long journey to North America, concealed in the hold of a ship. She falls ill on route, loses her baby and it is only the skill of a Chinese healer, Tao Chi'en, that saves her.
Eliza eventually arrives in California in 1849. Allende brilliantly evokes the enormous vigour of a country in the grip of gold fever, teeming with settlers of every nationality. The novel, at this point, broadens its scope and one suspects that Allende may have been diverted by her desire to illustrate how the American character has arisen from the melting pot of such turbulent times. As a result, the driven clarity of the early narrative falters, but there is still much to enjoy as Eliza, disguised as a boy, takes a job playing the piano in a brothel.
Tao Chi'en also has to find his way in a land where the opportunities are enormous but the penalties for failure are harsh. He feels his destiny is "to ease pain and achieve wisdom". He practises acupuncture and herbal medicine in San Francisco's Chinatown while his affection for Eliza deepens. A less accomplished writer would have made of this little Chinaman an uneasy caricature - the benign sage spouting Confucian wisdom so wearisomely familiar from countless Hollywood movies. But with Allende he is safe, and we are moved by his struggles.
In 1995, Allende, after completing Paula, her powerful memoir about the death of her daughter, wrote that "now I find it difficult to write again. What can I possibly write about that is as significant to me as Paula?" Well, nearly five years on, Allende has emphatically answered her own question by writing what may well be her best novel yet, a rich adventure story set against the emergence of the American nation.