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The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
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The High Mountains of Portugal is Yann Martel's 2016 book where, like in his big seller Life of Pi, he uses magic realism to explore the human condition. Where the style worked beautifully in the earlier work, in High Mountains the mysticism is a hindrance. Told in three loosely related parts, taking in place in Portugal over several decades, each main character's quest springs from grief.

In the first part, Homeless, Tomas (who has also lost his son, his wife and his father in one week) is so stricken by grief, he literally walks backwards to object to God's treatment of him in causing so much pain. Tomas goes on a ludicrous car journey in 1904 Portugal attempting to find a piece of religious art he's read about in a clergyman's diary. The car trip is doomed, and my book club wanted to read it as high comedy, but we wondered if Tomas was a stand in for the Biblical Job in this religiously saturated book, with a decidedly less comic tone.

In the second part, Homeward, Eusebio the head pathologist at a Portuguese hospital is a religious man who is at loss after the recent death of his wife, and the long-ago death of their son. This portion of the book is the most fanciful part of the narrative, featuring a ghost and a wild autopsy. In one of least interesting parts of the book, there's a tortured and unnecessary comparison of Agatha Christie to Christ that drones on and on. But when Martell gets back to grief he writes some beautiful passages. On funerals, for example, he writes: "First, you must have an excuse for one. A life must be given up. If you want it to be a good funeral, it must be a precious life, not some distant uncle or friend of a friend. Make it you own son. That the way to start a funeral, with a thunderbolt that hammers you right in the chest and cleaves your insides into pieces."

Finally, in Home, Peter, after the loss of his wife, takes in a chimpanzee from a science lab, and he escapes from his grief to live in the land of his ancestors in Portugal. He and the chimp take a strange road trip (then flight) to get to their destination like a Hollywood buddy film. As they get to know each other, and Peter comes to terms with his new life, their relationship is at times humorous, but ultimately touching.

Chimpanzees appear in each of three parts in some form another. It's not clear what Martell is trying to say about our relationship with chimps in a book about grief. I'm not even sure it's supposed to be clear.

There are a lot of big ideas in this book about our search for love, our ability to deal with great personal loss, and our quest to live complete lives. This isn't a smooth book. Once it was clear that reality wouldn't have a hold on the story, there were still times when I had to stop reading to contemplate what I'd just read. The book gets so caught up in trying to be quirky and surprising that it loses its way in making a point or telling a memorable story. The book reads quickly if you don't think deeply about it, but it also begs you to think deeply. Martell can't have it both ways.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 18, 2017 – Finished Reading
August 6, 2017 – Shelved

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