Book Review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I loved Martel’s Booker Prize Winner, Life of Pi and was keen to read The High Mountains of Portugal. This is not so much a novel but three separate stories spanning a century. It begins in 1904 when a young man, Tomas goes in search of an artefact which he believes will jeopardise Christianity. Using the strange mode of transport for its time, the motor car, Martel takes us on an interesting journey. Thirty-five years later a Portuguese pathologist devoted to Agatha Christie murder mysteries finds himself in his own murder mystery. Fifty years on, a grieving Canadian goes to a village in Portugal with a chimpanzee and Tomas’s initial quest is brought full circle.

Part fable and fantasy Martel takes us on an almost spiritual journey. The detail is sometimes laborious and at other times fascinating. Try to imagine getting into a vehicle for the first time when there was none around and navigating it in first gear through gawking villagers who’ve never seen a car before. I laughed when Tomas parked the car under a tree. Later he realises that he did not know how to reverse the car and instead chopped the tree down only to be faced with a stump which he could not drive over. However, the journey, at times, becomes all most as tedious as a real life one. I found myself skipping some repetitive sections to get to the point. The second story meandered. Although the third was better.

It’s not a fast paced read and it has little in plot. Yet the themes of love and loss are delicately weaved into what is sometimes absurd surrealism. Martel writes beautifully and plays with style and ideas, but I’m afraid this wasn’t quite enough for me.

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