‘A Sibila’ by Agustina Bessa-Luís

My rating: 2 stars

I made the decision to read a book by Agustina Bessa-Luís some time ago while searching for Portuguese authors to add to my list of 100 Women Writers to Read in my Lifetime. The short articles I read portrayed her as a prodigious writer, and A Sibila was said to be her best book. However, after forcing myself to finish this novel, I really can’t understand the reason why she is so revered.

The first characters to be introduced to the readers are Germana and Bernardo Sanches. They are gazing at an old house, and, without paying much attention to what Bernardo is saying, Germa starts talking about Quina, whose real name was Joaquina Augusta. She was the second daughter of Maria da Encarnação and Francisco Teixeira, and is the main character in this novel.

Quina wasn’t beautiful and didn’t mind lying when she deemed it necessary. Generally speaking, she didn’t like other women. She scorned being part of a group of girls who had to be submissive and whose best hope was to marry. However, this topic is never fully developed. Her personality is, most of the times, straightforwardly enumerated by the narrator, no examples being given of specific actions or situations that could explain why she was being characterised in a certain way. Quina changes when a new person enters her life later on in the book. At that moment, it feels like the story is finally going to become interesting, but it doesn’t.

A Sibila doesn’t rely on a noteworthy plot. In fact, the entirety of the novel feels like a boring conversation during which someone tells everything that crosses their mind about various people without apparently having a purpose, not bothering to focus on the significant part of a certain story. We are just informed about some of the events in Quina’s life in a fragmented way.

Furthermore, the characters are not well developed. Many members of Quina’s family and various inhabitants of the town where she lived in are mentioned in quick succession throughout the first chapters, which becomes quite confusing and doesn’t allow for the reader to form any kind of attachment to them. Whenever an interesting fact about a specific character is mentioned, it’s never further developed.

The writing style feels unnatural and forced. I read this book in Portuguese, my first language, and, although I don’t think I have a limited vocabulary, I didn’t know the meaning of various words Agustina Bessa-Luís chose to use. The sentences didn’t seem to flow naturally.

I was really close to rate this book with 1 star. However, I felt bad doing so, mainly because, despite all its flaws, which are many in my opinion, it mentions interesting topics about rural life in Portugal at the beginning of the 20th century – women marrying and having children really young, as well as instances of domestic violence, for example. There was a time when A Sibila was taught at secondary school in Portugal. I’m fortunate not to have been subjected to such a cruelty at that age. If I could go back in time, I would never have bought this book.


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