Book Review: City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

Book - City of the BeastsThis is an unusual book – magical yet almost believable, mythical yet real. It is the story of a boy (Alex) and his eccentric grandmother (Kate) travelling deep into the mysterious Amazon rainforest, further and further from civilisation, in search of ‘The Beast’, a strange and ancient creature which may or may not exist. I had read other works by Allende, and enjoyed them. This is different – a kind of modern fable aimed at younger readers.   

In one sense, this is a coming-of-age story, but it’s not your average teen adventure, and the underlying message (it’s also a kind of morality tale) is one of ecology – we must save these natural habitats before it is too late.

The opening pages are not the most gripping – I was initially unimpressed by the descriptions of an ordinary American boy struggling to accept his mother’s illness, and going about his everyday life. The writing style is fairly basic – probably written in that way to engage with younger readers. However, I stuck with it, and was pleased that I did, as the story really gets going when Kate and Alex set off on their Amazon adventure.

The notion that a supposedly responsible grandmother would drag her grandson into a dangerous world full of snakes and crocodiles, is ridiculous, yet it’s written in such a way that you can believe it happening. The story is full of humour, but also serious, as Alex begins to come to terms with the reality of his mother’s illness, and to look out at the world around him, rather than focusing on his own troubles.

Their slow voyage up the Amazon river echoes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as they plunge into a world where magic and spirits seem as real as the birds and snakes they see around them. Alex meets Nadia Santos, a young girl with a tame monkey (Borobá), who has a confident, quiet strength. Walimai, a mysterious shaman, warns them not to look for the Beast, and reveals that the expedition is in danger. It soon becomes clear that certain members of the expedition are intent on destroying the rainforest and its native inhabitants in an attempt to make money.

As the novel reaches its climax, Alex and Nadia are directed by Walimai to embark on a quest. Their task is to discover the ‘City of the Beasts’ in an attempt to save ‘The People of the Mist’ and find a magical cure for Alex’s mother. Alex must draw on the strength and courage of the Jaguar, his totemic animal, as he ventures further and further into an ancient world of spirits and impossibly slow-moving Beasts. Both Nadia and Alex learn that something precious must be sacrificed in order to gain their prize.

The book presents the modern Western world as bad, while the untouched, spiritual world of nature is seen as entirely good. It suggests that humans are at their best when they are at their most primitive, merging harmoniously with nature. But this moralistic slant didn’t prevent me from really enjoying the book. You should read it as a fairy tale, rather than a novel, aware that it is designed to put forward a message, written for a younger audience.

City of the Beasts is unusual, surreal even, but I would certainly recommend it. It is also the first of a three-part series. I haven’t yet read Kingdom of the Golden Dragon or Forest of the Pygmies, so please feel free to use the comments below if you have any suggestions or would recommend these sequels. Read more about Isabel Allende here.

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