Let’s start this review off with giving you my main impression of the book. Let’s go for: confusing. Not in the sense of the story line, but in the sense of whether I liked it or not. I kept switching between “ugh this is annoying” and “ha that’s actually quite smart”.
The book is written by Yann Martel, whom you may know from The Life of Pie. I haven’t read that book myself, but I’ve seen the movie and loved it. But of course we all know that isn’t a guarantee that you will love the book. And based on his writing style in The High Mountains of Portugal, I’m not sure if I would.
First of all, I found the book too descriptive. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when a writer can create a beautiful and clear image with his words, but in this book the descriptions were actually quite repetitive and it really slowed down my reading.
Despite its ungraceful appearance, he has always lamented the fate of the animal that once roamed the rural corners of his country. Was the Iberian thinoceros’s last bastion not, in fact, the High Mountains of Portugal? Curious, the hold the animal has had on the Portuguese imagination. Human advancement spelled its end. It was, in a sense, run over by modernity. It was hunted and hounded to extinction and vanished, as ridiculous as an old idea – only to be mourned and missed the moment it was gone. Now it is fodder for fado, a stock character in that peculiar form of Portuguese melancholy, saudade. Indeed, thinking of the long-gone creature, Tomás is overcome with saudade. He is, as the expression goes, tão docemente triste quanto um rinoceronte, as sweetly sad as a rhinoceros.
See what I mean?
Also, by the time I finally got curious about what was to happen to the poor character next, a new story began. The book consists of three stories, all taking place in the High Mountains, and all somehow connected. Everything in the story was there for a reason. To give an example, the main character in the first story had a habit of walking backwards. In the last story, the main character of that story noticed how in this town he came to live in (the same town where the main character of the first story ended up in before the stories switched), some of the people had a habit of walking backwards.
That was the only thing that kept me reading. I wanted to know how the stories were all connected. And some of it was quite smart really. Some aspect of one of the stories that you’d forgotten all about, would come back in a totally different setting making you utter an amazed “aaah” or maybe a “now would you look at that”. When I reached the end of the book, I was left with a thousand and one questions, but then I think it was quite surely not the aim of the book to answer all these questions. It’s like it set up three very different stories, only connected through random events, and actually focussing on those random events. The main story of these people’s lives was not what this book wanted to tell its readers.
But then coming to the question if I liked the book or not, I don’t really know. It had some fun parts, it had some boring parts. It partly annoyed me and it partly amazed me. I’d say, if you can handle a good portion of descriptive language, give it a try. You never know you might just figure this book out!