‘A Viagem do Elefante’ (‘The Elephant’s Journey’) by José Saramago

My rating: 4 stars

Inspired by a real historical occurrence, A Viagem do Elefante by José Saramago (The Elephant’s Journey in the translation into English by Margaret Jull Costa) doesn’t have the most exciting and intricate of plots. It is still an engaging book, however. Some of its best assets are the many philosophical and social considerations about various topics, including hierarchical power, human behaviour, religious beliefs, and how fiction is written, which are all included in long, but harmonious, paragraphs.

Set in the 16th century, the book starts the moment King João III of Portugal tells his wife, Catarina from Austria, that he is not pleased with the gift they gave to her cousin, the Archduke Maximilian, for his marriage four years before. Seeing that he happens to be in Spain, the king wants to offer him something else. They agree that Salomão, their elephant from India, is the perfect gift.

The king then chooses a group of people to escort Salomão to Valladolid where the Archduke is staying for a while. Among them is Subhro, the elephant driver. Throughout their journey from Lisbon to the Spanish border, Subhro and the military commander, who is not a cruel man but wants his rank to be respected, have various conversations. One of them is about Christianity and Hinduism, which leads to a priest wanting to bless the elephant. It’s a funny moment, as he just uses water from a nearby well. Continue reading


‘Hag-Seed’ by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 stars

When penning a book inspired by the work of William Shakespeare, authors can choose to just write a story with similar features or directly reference his work. Margaret Atwood opted for a mix of the two in Hag-Seed. Based on The Tempest, it is the story of a father who is struggling to deal with the death of his daughter, while seeking revenge from the people who wronged him. The impact of the emotions conveyed is undeniable. Nonetheless, it could have been even greater had the pacing been more consistent.

The story starts in March 2013. At Fletcher Correctional, a group of inmates is staging a performance of The Tempest. As the play is suddenly interrupted by the sound of shots being fired, readers’ interest and curiosity immediately peaks. We are then taken back in time at first to two months before and then even earlier. Through a third person narration from the perspective of Felix, we learn how he blames himself for not having realised that Tony plotted to assume his place as artistic director of Makeshiweg Festival twelve years before. When that happened, he was working on a production of The Tempest, while dealing with the grief of having lost his daughter, Miranda, to meningitis. His wife had died soon after giving birth to her. He harbours a strong resentment and is struggling financially.

After losing his job at the theatre company, he decided to move to a shanty he found at a hillside dwelling while driving aimlessly. He spent his days first renovating the place, then going to the library, and finally looking at the clouds, until he decided that he needed a purpose in life, which was to stage his version of The Tempest and to get revenge. He wasn’t sure how to achieve this, though. Continue reading

‘The Snow Ball’ by Brigid Brophy

My rating: 4 stars

Taking place during a single night, the novella The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy explores different relationships, some involving seduction and perchance love. The contrast between them is partially achieved thanks to the age difference between some of the characters. While Anna is struggling to deal with the inevitability of growing old, Ruth Blumenbaum is still an inexperienced young woman.

New Year’s Eve is a common time for celebration. Anna attends a masquerade ball at the house of her friend Anne. No sooner does the clock chime midnight than a man masked as Don Giovanni kisses her on the lips. Although she runs away from him at the time, afterwards she decides to find him again with Anne’s help. She isn’t successful in locating him. He is the one who finds her. Meanwhile, Ruth is writing a diary about the events she is witnessing at the ball.

The highlights of the book are the conversations between Anna and Don Giovanni. They are extremely gripping. It feels like they are either challenging or trying to impress one another by being witty. There are also many sensuous and funny moments that turn this simple story into a compelling novella, including jokes about Scandinavian names sounding like they are Latin and the jealousy older people feel of the young. Continue reading

‘Ship of Destiny’ by Robin Hobb

My rating: 4 stars

When readers start immersing themselves in the fantasy world presented in The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb, they have more questions than answers. Fortunately, by the end of Ship of Destiny, the last instalment in the second series set in the Realm of the Elderlings, almost all of those queries have satisfying answers. Some of them can be predicted based on the information provided in the previous books, Ship of Magic and The Mad Ship, while others come as a surprise. Although the development of the plot is not perfectly paced and not all of the strands are equally gripping, most characters are outstandingly portrayed.

In the previous two books various complications arise in Bingtown, Jamaillia, the Rain Wilds and the Pirate Isles. The time has come for the characters to sort it all out. The people of Bingtown have a serious conflict in their midst. Will the Old Traders, New Traders, Tree Ships and slaves manage to forge peace and create a better society? Will Althea get Vivacia back? The origin of wizardwood continues to be explored too with suspicions being surely confirmed. Kennit’s past is further delved into and readers learn why he was so eager to own a liveship.

All the books in the series are told in the third person from various perspectives. In this instalment, they can be grouped into two main strands that gradually start converging. While one is set on land, the other takes place mostly on the high seas. They are not equally gripping, however. The one Althea and Brashen are involved in is not only more engaging, because of their defined goal, but also more affecting, thanks to the detail and care with which their actions are conveyed. Continue reading

‘Os Maias’ (‘The Maias’) by Eça de Queirós

My rating: 5 stars

As the title suggests, Os Maias (The Maias in the translation into English) by Eça de Queirós focuses on the misadventures of the Maia family. However, this Portuguese classic, which I read for the first time around nineteen years ago, has much more to offer, since it’s also a superb portrayal of the vices of the higher classes in the 19th century and of the cultural discussions of the time. The ironic tone and some of the behaviours of the characters make this a recurring funny novel, despite it not lacking sadness as well.

The Maia family went to live at Ramalhete, a house at the Janelas Verdes neighbourhood in Lisbon, in the Autumn of 1875. Ramalhete had remained uninhabited for years, but now that Carlos was finishing his studies at the University of Coimbra, his grandfather Afonso wanted them to move there. They were the last two members of their family. Thanks to a valuable flashback, readers learn why.

When he was younger, Afonso da Maia, who was a supporter of liberalism, lived for a while in exile in the outskirts of London, as the absolutist King Miguel I had taken over the Portuguese throne. While he cherished living there, his wife struggled. Being surrounded by Protestants only made her Catholicism grow stronger. She started to hate everything that was English and sent for a priest from Lisbon to be responsible for their son’s education. The family ended up returning to Portugal when absolutism came to an end. The health of Afonso’s wife had been deteriorating, though, and, when she eventually died, their son, Pedro da Maia, was shaken by sadness and mourned her with intensity, behaving erratically. Continue reading

‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang

My rating: 3 stars

Suffering is a constant feeling in Human Acts by Han Kang. It is a book about how an uprising in South Korea and the actions of an authoritarian government affected the lives of various people throughout the years. Told from several points of view, it could have been more impactful had it focused on fewer perspectives and intertwined them more closely.

At the beginning of the book, the municipal gymnasium in Gwangju is being used to keep the bodies of the civilians who were killed by the South Korean army during the popular uprising of 1980. The narrator of the first chapter indirectly addresses a character who is looking for his friend’s corpse and, not having been successful in finding it, ends up staying at the gymnasium to help. He was with his friend during the uprising but fled when the army started shooting.

Each chapter has a distinct narrator. The second chapter is told in the first person by the soul of Jeong-dae, who was killed during the uprising. His body and those of many victims were thrown into a pile. He wants to know who killed him and his sister. Five years later, Kim Eun-Sook, an editor at a publishing house, is slapped seven times by a police detective who wants to know the whereabouts of a translator. Through a third-person narration, we learn how she was also affected by the uprising. The first-person narrator of the following chapter is a man who was a prisoner. He was one of the students who was part of the uprising and, in 1990, is recalling what he remembers from that time to a professor. Continue reading

‘Strike Your Heart’ by Amélie Nothomb

My rating: 5 stars

Short books can be as impactful and meaningful as longer ones. Strike Your Heart by the Belgian author Amélie Nothomb is a gripping and insightful story about uncaring, jealous mothers (and oblivious fathers) elegantly told mostly from the perspective of a perceptive daughter in various stages of her life. Although the short chapters make the plot flow fast, the life of Diane, the main character, still makes an indelible impression on readers.

In 1971, Marie, Diane’s mother, was nineteen years old. She was studying to be a secretary, but what gave her great satisfaction was going to tons of parties and catching the attention of young men there, since it made all the other young women jealous. Olivier was one of the young men interested in her. He believed that she was as much in love with him as he was with her. She soon got pregnant and had to give up her studies. They got married in a ceremony that was much simpler than Marie would have liked.

When Diane was born, Marie immediately became jealous of her. Olivier thought that she was depressed and asked his mother-in-law to take care of Diane during the day, while Marie studied to be an accountant. Despite immediately realising that it was a jealousy issue, she was delighted to look after her granddaughter, who was starting to understand that there was something wrong about the way her mother interacted with her. Continue reading

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

My rating: 3 stars

The light-heartedness with which the state of mind and challenges faced by the main character and narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata are addressed makes this short book an endearing story at first. It explores the pressure to conform to what society deems expected of people, particularly women, in various stages of life. Some of the later occurrences seem too far-fetched, though.

Keiko Furukura, a convenience store worker, grew up in a loving family. But when she was at primary school, she kept getting in trouble because of her way of reacting to things. Once she found a dead bird and, instead of burying it, she wanted to cook it. Another time, in order to stop two children fighting, she hit one of them with a spade. Afterwards, she decided to speak as little as possible to avoid problems.

She started working at the convenience store when she was still at university and has been there since the day it opened. For the first time she felt like part of society. She is now 36 years old and none of her initial colleagues work there anymore. Her parents would love for her to have another job, but she feels that she can only act like a “normal” person when all she has to do is follow the manual she was given during the initial training. She also tries to speak like her colleagues and copies the dressing style of the one that is almost her age. It’s at the convenience store that Keiko feels at home. Continue reading

‘Cada Homem é uma Raça’ (‘Every Man is a Race’) by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

Mia Couto’s writing style has an inventive quality to it, giving the eleven stories in the collection Cada Homem é uma Raça (Every Man is a Race in the translation into English) a curious sonority. Every story focuses on a particular person or group of people. Some of them have their lives changed either by individual actions or by the existing political and social realities.

The first story in the collection, ‘A Rosa Caramela’, is narrated by a young man from a village. He is not the main character, though. That is Rosa Caramela’s role. When she was younger, Rosa was left by a man whom she thought was going to marry her. Afterwards, she started behaving strangely and admiring a statue of a former coloniser. More than her inner feelings, the story is about how other people perceived her. The characteristic rhythm and sonority of the Portuguese from Mozambique immediately takes those reading it in the original on a journey there.

It’s not only the sound of the sentences that is distinctive, however. Mia Couto creates new words by turning everyday nouns and adjectives into verbs. This happens in almost all of the stories, but it is very pronounced and successful in ‘Rosalinda, a Nenhuma’, which is about how a woman dealt with the death of her unfaithful husband. In ‘O Ex-futuro Padre e sua Pré-viúva’, the author coined new words by mixing two together, which is slightly grating at times. This is the story of how a man who wanted to become a priest ends up marrying a woman, because she is believed to be pregnant. Continue reading

‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen

My rating: 4 stars

Racism, identity and marriage play a crucial role in Passing by Nella Larsen. Through the story of two women of African-American origin in the 1920s, it portrays the rife racism present in society and delves into how it is possible to live a lie for a long time, while feeling the need to escape it.

It’s a warm August and Irene Redfield is back in her hometown, Chicago, for a visit. To refresh herself, she decides to drink tea at the roof of the Drayton Hotel. She soon starts to feel uncomfortable, though, as a woman at a table near her can’t stop looking in her direction. The woman, Clare Kendry, ends up asking her if she doesn’t remember her. They used to be friends when they were younger but haven’t seen each other for twelve years, because Clare went to live with her aunts after the death of her father. She is now married and has been passing as white.

Clare manages to convince Irene to go to her place one afternoon. There she realises that Clare’s husband is not aware of her African-American origin, believing that he has married a white woman. In fact, he hates black people. Continue reading