Fifteen years ago Yann Martel made a huge splash in the publishing world when he released Life of Pi, a book that spent over a year on the NYT Bestseller List. Obviously many people read the book, and from what I can tell, either they really enjoyed it, or the really didn’t. I’ve never talked with anyone who read the book and was lukewarm about it. I was among the group who really enjoyed it and have been waiting for him to write another book that compares. His next book, Beatrice and Virgil fell flat for me, so much so, that I hesitated to bother reading The High Mountains of Portugal when it came out. I’m glad I decided to give it a try. While it’s not quite the book Life of Pi is, it’s a very worthy successor.
The book consists of three separate, but interconnected stories. Each takes place in the rural area known as “the high mountains of Portugal,” and each explores the nature and role of grief and faith in the life of Martel’s characters.
The first story takes place in 1904 and tells the story of Tomás, a young man who recently lost his son, his lover, and his father. Tomás is so affected by his grief that he decides he will walk backward for the rest of his life, physically demonstrating to God and the world that he has turned his back to them. Tomás embarks on a quest to find a religious relic he read about in the diary of a 17th-century priest who ministered to the slaves brought to Portugal. To help him search for the relic he borrows his wealthy uncle’s automobile, a new invention that very few people in Portugal, including himself, have ever seen before. Tomás has no idea how to operate nor maintain the automobile, but doesn’t let those facts deter him from using it to aid him in his journey.
The second story skips forward in time to the late 1930s and takes place in the office of Dr. Lozora, a pathologist. Lozora’s wife is a fan of Agatha Christie mysteries and has an unusual but entertaining theory about the connection she believes they have to The Four Gospels of the New Testament. Her theory serves as a precursor to a visit Lozora receives late in the night by an elderly widow who shows up with her husband’s dead body folded up inside her suitcase. She asks him to perform an autopsy, which turns into a metaphor for the life her husband led and her own grief at his passing.
The last story takes place decades later and involves Senator Peter Tovy, a Canadian politician who visits a chimpanzee refuge in Oklahoma and decides to adopt one of the chimps, quit his job, and move to Portugal, where his ancestors came from. Peter is still grieving the loss of his wife and without looking for it, finds the peace a solace he needs in the minimalistic life he makes for himself with his new companion in “the high mountains of Portugal.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆