‘A Desumanização’ by Valter Hugo Mãe

My rating: 4 stars

Portuguese author Valter Hugo Mãe reflects on the effects that the death of dear ones has on people in his novel A Desumanização (unfortunately I couldn’t find an English translation of the book). Through a poetic writing style, we travel to the Icelandic fjords where we meet Halldora, a girl whose twin sister (Sigridur) has died.

The book is narrated by Halldora. She tells in the first person how she felt about her sister’s death, and how difficult it was for her to cope and to feel like she had to be two persons at the same time. Everything is told from her point of view. There are no real dialogues, only the narrator expressing her feelings and memories, telling what other people had said and conveying what she had discovered about past events.

Her relationship with her parents is a complex one. Her mother seems to be in a state of deep pain. She is aggressive towards Halldora, since she believes she shouldn’t be alive whereas her sister was death. On the other hand, her father, a poem writer, is close to her and more loving.

When the narrator goes back in time to tell the reader about a particular instance shared with her sister, it is clear that they were really close. She remembers her right until the end of the novel and her advices seem to be permanently in the back of her mind.

After her sister’s death, she spends a lot of time with Einar, an older man who is interested in her. She thinks he loves her, although for the reader their relationship seems confusing and wrong. Halldora keeps remembering how her sister wasn’t fond of him, like in a way Sigridur was the voice of reason.

This is a slow-paced story that moves forward almost without the reader noticing. Details (names, ages…) about the characters are revealed throughout the novel, so we gradually understand better the situation. However, there are some questions left unanswered by the end of the book.

One of the things that still bothers me about this novel is not knowing when the events being narrated took place. A specific time period is never stated and, for me, some of the told occurrences were too serious to have been dealt with in the way they did, if they had taken place currently. Also by the way Halldora tells the story she can’t be narrating it shortly after what happened, because she was still quite young and the language used is too elaborate.

In fact, the writing style was what impressed me the most about this book. We are told instead of being shown, even the feelings. There are many suggestive and visual comparisons and metaphors throughout the novel. Iceland is sometimes compared to god, while other times it is personified. And, surprisingly, even the way the narrator describes dealing with her first period is poetic.

After reading the first pages, I was expecting much more in terms of plot, something that matched the expressive writing style. Nevertheless, this is a touching story filled with references to popular Icelandic stories and myths. This was the first book I read by Valter Hugo Mãe and it left me curious about his other works.

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