Isabel Allende’s first novel for a younger audience, City of the Beasts, begins from a distinctly modern point of crisis. Alexander Cold’s mother is dying of cancer and her illness is tearing the family apart. Unable to cope, Alex’s father sends him to New York to stay with his grandmother, Kate. The older woman turns out to be a fiercely independent travel writer, with ‘blue eyes sharp as daggers’ points’ and, one suspects, more than a little of the author in her. She takes Alex on assignment to the jungles of South America, in search of a legendary nine-foot ‘beast’. This is the arena in which he will make sense of his mother’s illness, and from which he will emerge a man.
Alex’s trip into the jungle soon becomes the adventure of a lifetime. In the company of Nadia, the daughter of their guide, he meets a mysterious shaman, overhears a sinister plot to eradicate the Indians, is abducted by a tribe with the power of invisibility, discovers the ‘City of the