Friday, 12 February 2016

Review: 'The High Mountains of Portugal' by Yann Martel

Life of Pi became a major hit upon its publication, triggering a boatload of new enthusiasm Yann Martel's writing. He now returns with The High Mountains of Portugal but in a way very different from what most would expect. If you're looking for Life of Pi 2.0 then this may not be the book for you. Thanks to Canongate and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/02/2016
Publisher: Canongate
The long-awaited new novel from the Booker Prize-winning author of the worldwide phenomenon Life of Pi.To suffer and do nothing is to be nothing, while to suffer and do something is to become someone. He must strike onwards to the High Mountains of Portugal!
In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomás discovers an old journal. It hints at the location of an extraordinary artefact that - if it exists - would redefine history. Travelling in one of Europe's earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this treasure. Some thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist finds himself at the centre of a murder mystery.
Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he comes to his ancestral village with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee.
Three stories. Three broken hearts. One exploration: what is a life without stories?
The High Mountains of Portugal takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century - and through the human soul.
Yann Martel is a masterful writer, capable of transporting his readers into his characters' mindsets with relative easy. What makes the novel both intriguing and complex is the fact Martel has split it into three seemingly unrelated stories, called 'Homeless', 'Homeward' and 'Home' respectively. Throughout the three stories, each featuring different main characters and set in different time periods, little hints are dropped as to how they're all tangentially linked to each other. But the big theme that seems to unite all three is the quest of each of the characters to explain their own lives, find meaning where there may be none and moving towards somewhere or something that can make them feel one and whole.

Loss is the grey cloud hanging over this novel, which makes it at once relatable to many people although the shape it takes and the way it affects the characters is something else. Martel interestingly develops how the loss of a loved one leaves a gap in the lives of people which needs to be filled by any means possible. That is why Tomás sets out in an automobile which hardly represents the cars we drive nowadays. It is also what leads Eusebio to be in his practice until late after closing hours and in the middle of the strangest of mysteries. And finally Martel gives us Peter, who copes with his loss by finding a new companion. Although each of Martel's three stories have a man at their centre, his narrative is never that straightforward. Each story is suffused by the presence and noted absence of others, of the things they leave behind. The interplay between the characters is largely what made The High Mountains of Portugal so interesting to me, as the switching between narrators occasionally even within stories revealed a lot about both the characters and the readers.

I might have been a little bit too harsh before when I said that those readers looking for a new Life of Pi might not find what they're searching for in this book. Where Life of Pi had loads of different layers of narrative, many of the initial layers weren't hard to grasp. Martel excels at using imagery to get the reader where he wants them, emotionally, and his use of Magical Realism is beautiful. The different layers of The High Mountains of Portugal are a bit harder to grasp. There is no simple straightforward storyline to follow, so there's a lot more trust in Martel required from the reader. In return, however, he delivers a beautiful, if strange, novel that is bound to surprise but also enchant you.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

The High Mountains of Portugal is a fascinating and beautiful book, but it does, at times, require work and determination. Martel doesn't make it easy for his readers, but then the novel is discussing hard topics itself. I'd recommend this to fans of Magical Realism and Literary Fiction.


  1. I'd love to read this one to see how Yann interconnects the three stories.

    1. It's definitely fascinating to see how he brings the three together :) Let me know if you decide to give it a try!