Book Reviews

Review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

He is objecting. Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object? (12)

Brilliantly crafted, inventive characters, and executed with a flair of the surreal, The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel is a deep exploration of the nature of grief and religion. I absolutely loved this book, as it simultaneously entertained and enlightened me. Presented in a series of three miniature stories, the entire stoyline connects in startling and poetic ways. All take place in the high mountains of Portugal. They deal with a man struck by grief into walking backwards, a philosophical discussion of the essence of faith framed by mystery writing, and the simple story of a man’s journey with his monkey. Along the way we are pulled into this surreal and magical world, where loss changes our lives in ways we could never imagine.

The sad fact is that there are no natural deaths, despite what doctors say. Every death is felt by someone as a murder, as the unjust taking of a loved being. And even the luckiest of us will encounter at least one murder in our lives: our own. It is our fate. We all live a murder mystery of which we are the victim (163-164).

Of the three novellas, I enjoyed the third the most and liked the second the least. I think the style of the third was the most similar to The Life of Pi, while the second felt a lot like a philosophical essay to me. The only thing that saved the second story for me was the twist at the end. The characters are all quirky, truly memorable and motivated by grief and loss. Throughout the three stories the suspense is built up without our ever knowing, weaving us into the mystery that is revealed at the end. Before we know it, the grand unveiling is exposed. We are left to examine the past pages for the clues we missed, in the true spirit of an Agatha Christie novel. The text is scattered with humor, balancing its jokes and cleverness with the tragedies of life and death.

Sometimes I think Odo breathes time, in and out, in and out. I sit next to him and I watch him weave a blanket made of minutes and hours…I’m in the presence of a weaver of time and a maker of space. That’s enough for me (301).

The High Mountains of Portugal asks us how do we make sense of our grief and how do we move forwards? When we lose our loved ones, we are presented with the universal injustice of their deaths, whether they be sudden or prolonged. We are left wondering who to hold accountable and in these moments many turn to faith for answers and blame. How do we make sense of these stolen people, taken from us before we can say goodbye, before their first memories? These issues, and more, are all examined on these pages.

While this novel dwells on our loss, equal moments are spent asking ourselves how we can move on with our lives. The end had an elegant poetic justice that tied the whole novel and treatise on grief and faith together. There are still moments of mystery left at the end. However, we have little choice but to wonder, accept the words, and live in the present. I enjoyed this book so much as it was one of the best books of 2016 for me. I am glad I finished off this year with such a powerful and charming book.

Have you ever read anything by Yann Martel? If so, what and what did you think!

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