When I read a novel, I hope that I will be presented with a compelling story peopled by characters with whom I can relate, be they kind, virtuous, noble, loving, selfish, hateful, or vindictive. In that respect, "Island Beneath the Sea" won me over completely.
The story is centered around 3 families and spans the years 1770 to 1810. Toulouse Valmorain arrives on the island of Saint Domingue in 1770, as a man aged 20, to assume ownership and responsibility for a plantation his family has established there (Saint-Lazare). He is a young man with egalitarian ideas, as well as an atheist. He mixes in as best he can with the stratified society that defines Saint Domingue, France's wealthiest colony, largely based on sugar and slave labor. "Toulouse Valmorain spent the first years lifting Saint-Lazare from devastation and was unable to travel outside the colony even once. He lost contact with his mother and sisters, except for sporadic, rather formal letters that reported only the banalities of everyday life and health. After his failure with two French managers, he hired a mulatto as head overseer of the plantation, a man named Prosper Cambray, and then found more time to read, to hunt, and travel to Le Cap. There he had met Violette Boisier, the most sought after cocotte of the city, a free young woman with the reputation of being clean and healthy, African by heritage, and white in appearance..."
Valmorain and Violette had a passionate relationship til he, on a visit to Cuba to visit his business associate, a Spaniard named Sancho Garcia del Solar, introduces him to his younger sister Eugenia, freshly arrived from a nunnery in Madrid. Valmorain and Eugenia marry and return to Saint Domingue. But Saint Domingue does not quite agree with delicate and high-strung Eugenia, who begins to display the dementia that would determine her fate.
To help with running the house, Valmorain, with Violette's help, makes inquiries for a slave girl to comfort and assist his wife with the everyday running of the house. Thus he purchases, in the early 1780s, a scrawny, spirited 11-year old girl named Tete (aka Zarite). Tete --- the daughter of a African woman she never knew and a white sailor who impregnated her on the slave ship that transported her to Saint Domingue --- "survives a childhood of brutality and fear, finding solace in the traditional rhythms of African drums and in her exhilarating initiation into the mysteries of voodoo."
By this time, while Violette and Valmorain are no longer lovers (she has married a courageous and principled French army officer named Relais who is utterly devoted to her), they maintain a tenuous, friendly contact.
In the meantime, Saint Domingue becomes engulfed in revolution and civil war in the wake of the French Revolution. The lives of Valmorain and his family, Violette and Relais, and Tete are turned upside down. Eventually, most of the main characters, in order to survive, have little choice but to leave Saint Domingue as best they can.
After a sojourn in Cuba, Valmorain (now widowed) and his family --- with Sancho's help --- emigrate to New Orleans in the Louisiana Territory circa 1795, where he works painstakingly to re-establish his wealth and position in society. Tete, by now a young, attractive, and desirable woman, shows herself to be strong, resilient and resourceful, despite the limitations and indignities slavery has placed upon her life. By way of contrast, Valmorain becomes a rather debased person as the novel progresses, though not altogether heartless.
"Island Beneath the Sea" stands out as a moral tale on slavery, racism, love, and the vagaries of the human heart. From me, it comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.