‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 stars

It was an immense pleasure to finally read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in the original language more than a decade after first falling in love with it thanks to the Portuguese translation. The convincing characters and the engaging plot may be my old friends, but turning the pages of this wonderful classic felt like making a brand-new discovery.

Mrs Bennet was eager to marry her five daughters – Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine and Lydia. So, it was with great satisfaction that she learnt that a single young man, Mr Bingley, who had a large fortune, was to live at the neighbouring Netherfield. Although Mr Bennet told her that he did not wish to pay Bingley a visit, he had always intended to go to his new home and, in fact, he was one of the first to do so. Elizabeth was Mr Bennet’s favourite daughter, reason why he was convinced that she would be the one to catch Mr Bingley’s attention. He was wrong, though.

Mr Bingley attended a ball where he danced more than once with Jane. He thought that she was the most beautiful woman there. And Jane admire him also, since he was handsome, lively and had good manners. Bingley was there with his sisters and his friend Mr Darcy, who, despite being a handsome man, was deemed horrid and arrogant. He refused to dance with anyone whom he didn’t already know and was overheard saying that Elizabeth’s looks were merely tolerable. Continue reading

‘Afirma Pereira’ (‘Pereira Maintains’) by Antonio Tabucchi

My rating: 4 stars

Certain books are set in such distinguishable periods in history that their authors needn’t have mentioned a particular year in order to create a sense of time. Afirma Pereira (Pereira Maintains in the English translation) by the Italian author Antonio Tabucchi is one of those novels. Set in Lisbon in 1938, it is a criticism of totalitarian states, censorship and repression.

The main character of this book is a journalist named Pereira, who had just become the editor of the cultural page of a third-rate newspaper. As he needed a contributor to help write anticipated obituaries, he contacted the young Monteiro Rossi, who had written a dissertation about death at university, a topic that was of particular interest to Pereira. Since the passing of his wife, Pereira was constantly musing on death.

Monteiro Rossi accepted to work for the newspaper. The articles he wrote were not what Pereira had in mind, though. His first obituary was about García Lorca, a writer that was considered to be subversive not only by Franco in Spain, but also by Salazar in Portugal. Therefore, it couldn’t be published. As Monteiro Rossi was counting on being paid to have money for food, Pereira invited him for lunch. Pereira was old enough to be his father. Maybe for that reason he started caring about what happened to him and to his girlfriend, Marta, who was too outspoken for a country oppressed by a dictatorship. Continue reading

‘The Scapegoat’ by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 4 stars

Even if two men look exactly the same, the way in which they interact with other people is bound to be different. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier offers an interesting perspective on how such disparities in behaviour have consequences in the lives of others. The main allure of this novel is to discover more about the past of the characters, which explains their current behaviour, at the same time as the narrator, particularly because they wrongly believed that he had the same knowledge as them.

The narrator is a lecturer on French history and language from England who at the beginning of the book was travelling around France. While at a station buffet, he saw a man, Jean de Gué, whose appearance and voice were exactly like his. The resemblance was undeniable. It was like looking straight into a mirror. They drank and had dinner together. Jean de Gué was eager to know more about the narrator’s life and was particularly interested in him not having a family, something that he considered to be freeing.

Jean decided to rent a room for the night and they had a few more drinks there. When the narrator woke up the next day, Jean was gone and had stolen his wallet and clothes. Jean’s chauffeur was there to pick him up and was fully convinced that the narrator was his employer. After unsuccessfully trying to explain that he was not Jean, he gradually ended up deciding to also assume the place of his doppelgänger. But it was only when they were getting close to Jean’s house that he completely realised the full extent of what he was doing. Continue reading

‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

My rating: 3 stars

Patchy and uneven, Hard Times by Charles Dickens is a novel whose main purpose is to criticise the glorification of utilitarianism. For a long while, the characters and, to a certain extent, the plot are only used to convey that condemnation, instead of being critical elements of a gripping story. Although almost all of the characters and the apparent inconsequential parts of the plot end up being relevant, that only happens close to the end of the book.

The headmaster of the Coketown school, Mr Thomas Gradgrind, required his pupils to only be taught facts. His own children had the same type of education. Any activity that required imagination, emotions and creativity was forbidden. Once, when he found two of his children, Louisa and Thomas, watching a touring circus, he was appalled. Louisa had been curious to know what it looked like, though.

Sissy Jupe, a new girl at the school, was the daughter of a man who was a performer at the circus. So, Mr Gradgrind and his friend Mr Bounderby went looking for him to inform him that she couldn’t attend the school anymore. But, as Sissy’s father had disappeared, Mr Gradgrind made her a proposal instead – she could continue going to the school as long as she left the circus and he became her tutor. With great sadness, Sissy accepted. Despite not knowing many facts, reason why she was led to feel inadequate, she revealed an interesting perspective on social issues. Continue reading

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth Macneal

My rating: 4 stars

Characters are an essential part of a compelling book. Although the ones featured in The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal feel slightly artificial at first, they become fully fledged and engrossing as the story progresses. Together with an absorbing plot and a vivid writing style, they help turn this debut novel about freedom, independence and the difference between love and obsession into a gripping read, which also portrays a hypocritical and judgemental society.

The year is 1850, and the location is London. Twin sisters Iris and Rose work at Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium. Iris’s job is to paint the dolls. What she really wants to do in life, though, is to paint proper pictures, instead of china eyes and cheeks. She longs to become an artist. Despite both her family and the society in general seeing it as immoral, she is secretly trying to paint a picture of herself.

By chance, Iris meets Silas at the place where the Great Exhibition is to be held. He collects curiosities and dedicates himself to taxidermy. The way in which he performs his task is described in a chilling tone. Almost instantly, Silas becomes obsessed with Iris. She reminds him of Flick, a close friend he had when he was 15 years old. There’s a convincing eeriness surrounding him. Continue reading

‘Within the Sanctuary of Wings’ by Marie Brennan

My rating: 4 stars

The tale of how Isabella became a famous naturalist around the world thanks to her discoveries about dragons comes to an end in Within the Sanctuary of Wings. As in the four previous books in The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, Marie Brennan mixed an adventure with anthropological, scientific and cultural elements, creating a fantasy world and society that occasionally resemble our own. The relationships between the characters are not as explored as in other instalments unfortunately. Isabella’s newest discovery, however, is one of the most exciting.

Isabella was nearly forty at the time of the events that she is recalling. Once, while she was in her home country, Scirland, she was approached by a man who claimed to had found the body of a dragon of an unknown breed at the Mrtyahaima mountains in the Dajin continent. Mr Thu Phim-Lat was an exile who had been a mountaineer. In exchange for more information, he wanted Isabella to help his people, the Khiam Siu, to establish an alliance with Scirland’s government against the Taisên.

Mr Thu didn’t provide any substantial proof of his claim. He only had a pair of scales and the notebook that he used to sketch what he had seen. That was enough to arouse Isabella’s curiosity, though. Her desire to go there only increased when Mr Thu revealed that he also believed that there might be another specimen in the same area. Although there was no guarantee that a dragon could actually be found there, Isabella, Suhail and Tom headed to the highest mountains in the world. Continue reading

‘O Bebedor de Horizontes’ by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

O Bebedor de Horizontes is the last instalment of the trilogy As Areias do Imperador (Sands of the Emperor) by the Mozambican author Mia Couto. One of the main differences between this book and the previous two, Mulheres de Cinza (Woman of the Ashes in the English translation) and A Espada e a Azagaia, is that it gives more prominence to some historical figures, although Imani continues to be the main character. The novel is at its best, in fact, when it focuses on her more personal experiences.

Set in 1895 and 1896, mainly in Mozambique, it explores the aftermath of the Portuguese offensive against Ngungunyane, the emperor of the State of Gaza. The narration in the first person by Imani, a young woman from the Vachopi tribe, is complemented by a variety of letters sent to her not only by Germano, but also by other characters, such as Bianca. We learn that within the Portuguese military there’s a conflict between Mouzinho de Albuquerque and Álvaro Andrea. Germano believes Andrea to be a much better person overall. But it’s Imani who has to deal with both of them.

The style of the prose changes slightly depending on what is being conveyed. When Imani is reporting on what other characters did, the writing style is more straightforward, less embellished. On the other hand, when she is being more introspective or recalling her own experiences, words come together more graciously and metaphors abound. Continue reading

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark

My rating: 4 stars

Whether they desire it or not, some teachers can be a huge source of inspiration. The title character of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark derived great satisfaction from the influence that she had over her pupils, particularly the group of girls known as the Brodie set. Throughout this novella, Miss Brodie looms large, despite the story almost never being told from her perspective. Such an interesting and problematic character called for a slightly longer book.

A group of girls (Monica, Rose, Eunice, Sandy, Jenny and Mary) at Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh was known as the Brodie set. Jean Brodie was their teacher when they were at junior school in the 1930s. Although her teaching methods were not, overall, well regarded at the school, she believed herself to be in her prime. She was interested in art and particularly loved painting. But she also had a strong admiration for Mussolini’s troops. The girls were noticeably under her spell, and Miss Brodie didn’t want to lose her influence.

The plot jumps in time. Readers get to succinctly know what the Brodie set were up to when they were around 10, 16 and then as adults. When they were 16 years old, Miss Brodie asked for their help, as there was a plot at school to force her to resign. Before she died, she kept questioning whom amongst her girls had betrayed her. What was behind the betrayal starts getting revealed without details, being only briefly mentioned, and only afterwards it’s further explored. Continue reading

‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

My rating: 2 stars

The importance of The Awakening by Kate Chopin as a work of early American feminism is undeniable. I didn’t cherish the reading experience, however. Published and set at the end of the 19th century, this novella touches on interesting issues, such as women’s need for independence, but they are not turned into an immersive story that brings the characters to life.

The main character, Edna Pontellier, was married and had two children. During the summer holidays, she became drawn to another man, Robert. Subsequently, she started to overlook conventions and to question why, until then, she had always done everything that her husband wanted.

The writing style didn’t enthral me. Readers become aware of what the characters did and felt but without any sort of detail and depth. Everything is just exposed on the surface level. For that reason, the characters don’t feel fully fledged. Although their features are stated, they are not striking, since their states of mind are not wholly explored. Edna’s tribulations, as she tried to give a new impetus to her life, are only occasionally arresting. The other characters are just mere decoration pieces. Continue reading

‘Ensaio sobre a Lucidez’ (‘Seeing’) by José Saramago

My rating: 4 stars

Various books by José Saramago can be categorised as allegories. Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Seeing in the English translation) is certainly one of those. It delves into the complexities of democracy, how people need to find a way to express their dissatisfaction and how even democratically elected governments don’t always treat citizens with the respect they deserve. Set in the same location as Blindness, it pulls readers in thanks to an engaging prose, even if some of the characters are not fully fleshed out.

On a day of local elections, rain was heavily pouring down in the capital of an unnamed country. As no one was appearing to cast their votes, the people responsible for the polling station number 14 decided to call the ministry. They were informed that the same was happening at the majority of all the other polling stations in the city. When the rain started to stop, they became confident that voters would finally appear. And they were right. After four o’clock in the afternoon, there were long queues to vote. It was almost as if everyone had decided to vote at the same time.

Although abstention wasn’t as high as first feared, the counting of the votes revealed that more than 70% of the people in the capital had voted blank. For that reason, the government decided to repeat the election a week after. When the day came, long queues quickly formed. In order to understand if voters were planning something, spies were deployed to the polling stations. The votes were counted – 83% voted blank! Continue reading