The Brave Little Tailor had nothing on Inés Suarez. The Spanish seamstress was born into poverty in 1508, but traded in her needle for a sword – traveling across the Atlantic to ultimately become one of 12 conquistadors who left Peru to found the country of Chile.
Chilean writer Isabel Allende ("Zorro," "Portrait in Sepia") would seem the ideal writer to rescue Suarez from her inexplicable obscurity. That promise is at least partly fulfilled in the periodically engrossing Inés of My Soul, but readers will have to overlook stretches of heavy-breathing prose and dry history to get at the meat of the story.
And what a story it is. Suarez crossed the Atlantic following her straying first husband, not because she wanted him back, but because she wanted to partake of the freedom the New World represented. By the time she died in 1580, she had been the lover of the first governor of the new country and wife of the second. She traveled across deserts and jungles, and survived years of starvation in the new colony. At one point, she personally defended the capital, Santiago, against invading Mapuche warriors. (And, according to Allende, she did it all without losing her figure.)
The novel gets a bit bogged down in its structure: It's presented as a letter to Suarez's adopted daughter, Isabel, the child of her second husband. Most of the action is described after the fact, allowing little narrative tension. Suarez also tells Isabel things that the girl would either (a) surely know or (b) surely not ever want to (for example, details about her parents' love life). And Allende occasionally has Suarez narrate episodes that she could not have known about – even given a penchant for magic realism.
Isabel's dad isn't the focus of Inés's story. That honor goes to Pedro de Valdivia, field marshal to Francisco Pizarro (famous for dismantling Peru's Incan civilization). When they meet, Valdivia is an idealist fueled by dreams of glory; when they part 10 years later, he's been consumed by them. Suarez outlives him by about 30 years, going on to become the mother of the country they founded together.
Fans of Allende's earlier novels will still find enjoyment in "Inés of My Soul" – at least, those who don't emerge pale and shaken from the grisly encounters between the invading Spanish and the native tribes. Certainly Allende hasn't avoided violence in her previous novels, but "Inés of My Soul" features a Grand Guignol climax that might gross out even Mel Gibson. This is not to accuse Allende of taking historical liberties; even a cursory knowledge of the conquistadors is enough to know they visited incredible outrages and cruelties against the native tribes of the Americas. And Allende, to her credit, rarely indulges in politically correct revisionism. In an afterward, she writes that she spent years researching Suarez's life, and that care is evident in the level of detail she devotes to elevating her heroine from history's forgotten footnotes.
At one point, Suarez writes, "I am obliged to relate my version of events in order to leave an account of the labors we women have contributed in Chile; they tend to be overlooked by the chroniclers." Allende may not have made Suarez sing, but at least she gave her back her voice.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.