Posted on April 29, 2018
14. ‘City of the Beasts’ by Isabel Allende
It’s not often that I reread a book, but I loved City of the Beasts as a child and so I thought it would be interesting to read it as an adult and see if I still got that same sense of magic. I’d say the experiment was semi-successful.
Alex is an anxious 15-year-old from California. His mother is very sick and his father has to look after her, so Alex is sent to stay with his grandmother, Kate, an adventurer and journalist who doesn’t have time for her grandson’s anxieties. She is planning a trip to the Amazon to track a mysterious ‘Beast’, and Alex is going to have to go along. How will he fare with surviving in the jungle, and what sort of magical discoveries will he make there?
I really liked the character of Alex. He’s set up as a ‘typical’ teenager, complete with unattainable crush and fussy eating habits. That’s probably why I identified with him when I read City of the Beasts as a kid – I was also shy and fussy and a little bit nervous, and it was inspiring to watch someone like me transform into the hero of the story. The other main character is Nadia, a Brazilian girl who lives in a town in the jungle and is very in tune with nature and the local tribes. She could be seen as a ‘manic pixie dream girl’, but she’s only ever Alex’s friend rather than a love interest, and that’s pretty refreshing for a male/female duo in a YA book (or any book, for that matter).
Magic is extremely important in this book. There are local tribes with magical rituals, spiritual beliefs and mystical shamans; the Beast is a tangible but unexplained presence; and characters are sort of able to commune with animals. Of course, when I read this book as a kid, it was the colour and magic that stayed with me most strongly, but as an adult it’s difficult not to see the problems behind it. For the most part the magical realism is used to promote the book’s ecologically and socially conscious message (i.e. we shouldn’t callously destroy nature or exterminate ancient tribes for modern purposes), which is great, but at times the message becomes too simplified. The Amazonian tribespeople (called ‘the Indians’ throughout) are perfectly in harmony with nature, and they are sometimes depicted as child-like in their ‘innocence’ and wonder. Similarly, modernisation is portrayed as an inevitable evil, and the book edges too close to the ‘science vs. nature’ dichotomy for my sceptic’s brain. At times, the narrative is a bit too ‘white saviour’, a bit too ‘mystical natives’ and a bit too anti-science.
The part of this book that I remembered most strongly from my childhood comes towards the end, when some of the characters discover a magical land inside a mountain, filled with wondrous creatures and exotic plants. At one point, a character has to crawl through a tight underground tunnel, and I remember that scene feeling particularly vivid to me as a kid. Reading it back, I was surprised to find how much shorter that scene was than I remembered – it’s literally only a paragraph or two, and I thought it went on for pages – and of course there was so much more of the story that I’d forgotten. It’s interesting, what stays with you!
City of the Beasts is an interesting read. It has a few problems, but there are some good characters, some great moments of adventure/discovery and plenty of fun. Of course, it’s pitched towards children/young adults, and that audience is much more likely to enjoy it, so if like me you read it and loved it in your childhood, it’s probably best to leave it there.
“Destiny was a fact, and there were times you had to jump into an adventure and get out whatever way you could.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy City of the Beasts here.