Almost everyone loved Life of Pi - it has even been made into a blockbuster film. I say almost everyone, as truth be told, I was not that much of a fan. And a shared rite of passage road trip with my husband (watching the film of the book on a tiny screen on a bus jolting from Pnomh Penh to Siem Riep in Cambodia) didn't do it any favours either. It was a trip as far removed from cool waters and tigers as it was possible to be. To this day there are small pockets of Cambodian dust nestled in my luggage. I can picture us still, sitting jammed into seats designed for daintier people, with our individual thought bubbles whimpering "We should have flown. We should have flown".
So I was ready, in a clean-slate kind of way, for Martel's next offering The High Mountains of Portugal. Devoid of tigers, small boats and large oceans, Martel has instead turned his prodigious story-telling talents to include three interlocking tales, all set in Portugal and all involving love, loss and the meaning of life. It is at one and the same time an intricate, yet mesmerising read. If I do not allow myself to become too distracted by certain weirdnesses (take backward walking, the Jesus Christ/Agatha Christie connection and the Iberian Rhinoceros for example), I would sum it up as follows:
- In any life, there will be some bad times of loss and heartbreak
- You will need to be able to ask for help
- You will need to be specific with your requests for said help
- Help will also come from unexpected quarters
- Always read the instruction manual carefully
- A lot of your problems you will have brought upon yourself
- While you yourself are hurting, you are still capable of inflicting great harm on others
It is such a rare read, that in the end you may find yourself falling back on prior reading connections to make any sense of it all. It reminded me of the magical realism of 100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and the poem Kindness by my favourite poet Naomi Shahib Nye. But mostly what it did not remind me of was the author's previous novel, Life of Pi.
And one final point - nowadays we are all keen to trumpet what great films certain books would make. I can tell you with absolute certainty that I do not believe The High Mountains of Portugal will ever be made into a film.
You are going to have to read it!