‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Tracy Chevalier

My rating: 4 stars

Inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s famous portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier tells one of the many possible and plausible stories about the face that stands out from the painting’s dark background. The novel is narrated in the first person by sixteen-year-old Griet. She recalls how she came to sit for Vermeer in a historical fiction novel that features many interesting characters whose tribulations deserved to be even further explored.

In 1664, Griet became a maid at Vermeer’s household. She had to start working outside the home, because her family was struggling financially. After losing his eyesight in an accident, her father couldn’t continue to be a tiles painter and lost all his trade. Griet’s new job was not only to wash all their clothes and to buy meat or fish at the market, but also to clean Vermeer’s studio. When she arrived at their house, she was astonished at all the paintings. She didn’t have much free time to stare at them, though, as Johannes and his wife, Catharina, who was pregnant again, had five children, and his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, also lived with them.

Griet was only allowed to go home on Sundays. News about her parents and siblings, Agnes and Frans, were scarcer than she would have liked. It was Pieter, the son of the butcher at the market, who told her that the neighbourhood where her parents lived had been put into quarantine because of an outbreak of the plague. She wanted to go home immediately but was not allowed to. Pieter managed to find out for her that her sister was seriously ill. Continue reading

‘A Máquina de Joseph Walser’ (‘Joseph Walser’s Machine’) by Gonçalo M. Tavares

My rating: 2 stars

The characters in A Máquina de Joseph Walser (Joseph Walser’s Machine in the English translation) by the Portuguese author Gonçalo M. Tavares are incredibly detached. It’s not easy to connect with them. They seem to be facing a grim, harrowing situation, but their feelings and tribulations are not affectingly conveyed. Their existence in the story feels merely like a vehicle to communicate abstract ideas.

Joseph Walser is initially an intriguing main character. He was married to Margha and worked in a factory owned by the mogul Leo Vast. A man of few words, he looked like someone who was oblivious to the outside world. He was only completely focused while working. He operated a machine that required his full attention so he didn’t get hurt. Once, while returning home at night after being with his work colleagues, he saw his wife leaving a building and instantly thought that she was cheating on him. He wasn’t wrong. He soon learnt that she was having an affair with his manager, Klober Muller.

Not even halfway through the book, the characters and the plot start to be disregarded. The narration is, since the beginning, interspersed with philosophical considerations about life, war and the human existence in general. However, as events start to be just thrown into the book without having a meaningful impact on the characters’ feelings and actions, this at first promising novel (or maybe novella) becomes just a boring collection of haphazard thoughts. Continue reading

‘The Return of the Soldier’ by Rebecca West

My rating: 4 stars

The storytelling in The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West is concise. There aren’t noteworthy twists and turns. Although the characters are believable, both their personalities and states of mind could have been further explored. When we get to the end of this nevertheless enjoyable novella, Chris’s perspective is almost absent. This story is ultimately about the decisions made by the women in his life.

A long time had passed since Chris Baldry had written home from the war. The narrator, his cousin Jenny, couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t received any new letters, while his wife, Kitty, was more at ease with the lack of news. Neither of them could have guessed that they were about to receive a visit from a woman with information to share about him. Margaret Allington, whom Chris had loved in the past, received a telegram from him. He was in hospital and had no recollection of the last fifteen years. He thought that they were still young and together.

At first, Jenny and Kitty didn’t believe her, but they soon had confirmation of Chris’s memory loss. The next morning, they received a letter from Frank Baldry, another of Chris’s cousins, whom had recently visited him at the hospital. He advised them to get everything ready for Chris’s return home. Continue reading

‘Provavelmente Alegria’ by José Saramago

My rating: 4 stars

José Saramago is renowned for his novels, but he also wrote plays, poetry and short stories. Provavelmente Alegria, which has not been translated into English yet as far as I’m aware, is one of his three poetry collections. The majority of the poems featured in this collection don’t have a blatant message, their meanings need to be unearthed, each word dissected. For that reason, my interpretations may be different from those of other readers. But isn’t that part of the magic of reading poetry?

Human beings and our myriad of emotions take centre stage in this collection. In various of the poems, there’s either a contrast between people and nature or a communion between the two. ‘Ainda Agora é Manhã’ is a visual description of the sun rising in the morning and how it differs from the sorrow felt by a person. ‘Paisagem com Figuras’ also features descriptions of nature, which surrounds a couple. When they hold hands, the place turns into paradise. ‘Ao Centro da Esmeralda’ establishes a correlation between the human body and natural elements, such as the moon, the sun, the green grazing land. One of the shortest poems in the collection, ‘Flor de Cato’, meaningfully compares the human heart with the flower of a blossoming cactus.

My favourite poem from the collection is ‘Na Ilha por Vezes Habitada’, which draws a parallel between humans and an island. Though we live through good and bad moments, our connection with the land offers peace of mind and makes life worth living. Continue reading

‘Assassin’s Quest’ by Robin Hobb

My rating: 4 stars

The Six Duchies and their neighbouring territories may be part of a fictional world, but they truly come to life in Assassin’s Quest, the last book in The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. Although the pacing is not always perfect, it has a well-defined direction since the beginning, which isn’t the case of the previous instalment, Royal Assassin. Through Fitz’s narration, it delves into the difference between duty and greed for power, a theme already touched on in the first book in the trilogy, Assassin’s Apprentice. Such an immersive read is a welcome invitation to continue to explore the Realm of the Elderlings.

In the prologue of the book, a much older Fitz muses about his past, what he suffered at Regal’s hands and the kindness that Lady Patience, his father’s wife, showed him on many occasions. He is still unsure about whether he should have thanked Burrich and Chade for what they did or not. The role of narrator is then assumed by a younger Fitz. He recalls how he escaped his prior predicament, and readers are reminded of the final events of the previous book.

Fitz resented never having been able to make his own decisions. But was this true? Chade tried to make him see that he had always done that. If he had strictly followed the orders he had been given, events wouldn’t have taken place in the way they did. He had always acted as a boy. It was time to grow up, though. Burrich decided that it was best for them to follow separate paths. Continue reading

‘O Último Voo do Flamingo’ (‘The Last Flight of the Flamingo’) by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

Magical realism elements are ubiquitous in Mia Couto’s work. In O Último Voo do Flamingo (The Last Flight of the Flamingo in the English translation), the Mozambican author mixed local superstitions and folklore with social and political denunciations, while presenting various distinctive characters.

The narrator of this novel is a translator from Tizangara who at the time of the events was at the service of the village administrator. In the first years after the civil war, five of the UN Blue Helmets who were overseeing the peace process exploded. Their bodies weren’t torn to shreds. They just disappeared, their penises being the only body part that could be found. As an Italian man was to arrive to investigate what had happened to the soldiers, the administrator, Estêvão Jonas, called on the narrator to be his translator.

Although the narrator didn’t speak Italian, Jonas didn’t consider that to be a problem. He just needed to have a translator as all important people. Thankfully Massimo Risi had a basic grasp of the language. What he couldn’t understand was the people, their local customs and superstitions. The beliefs and behaviours of the inhabitants of the village were puzzling. He became particularly interested in Temporina, a woman with a young body and a much older face. He was eager to be successful on his mission, however. He was seeking a promotion after all. Continue reading

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell

My rating: 5 stars

The dystopian society that George Orwell created for Nineteen Eighty-Four lays bare his extensive knowledge about totalitarian regimes, history and political philosophy. Having read it for the first time in Portuguese more than a decade ago, I cherished (re)reading it now in English and recalling why it remains a critical book. It makes absolutely and flawlessly clear how authoritarians operate by showcasing various of their techniques, while also being a prescient novel concerning the possibility of mass surveillance.

Winston, the main character, was a 39-year-old man who worked at the Ministry of Truth in London, a city part of Airstrip One, one of the most populous provinces of Oceania, which was perpetually at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia. His job was to reconstruct the past. He changed the texts of news pieces, books, posters and pamphlets so they, irrespective of what happened, continued to suit the interests of the Party, whose central face was the Big Brother, a black-haired man with a moustache.

Freedom was less than a faint memory. Houses came equipped with telescreens that could never be completely turned off. Not only did they transmit information, but they also recorded images and sounds. Through them, the Thought Police could hear and watch everything that occurred nearby. People’s only loyalty should be to the Party. Love and desire were detrimental feelings, so the only purpose of marriage was to conceive. Winston had been married for little more than a year, but his wife left him as she couldn’t become pregnant. Continue reading

‘Sulphuric Acid’ by Amélie Nothomb

My rating: 4 stars

Full of impactful moments of dark humour, Sulphuric Acid by Amélie Nothomb is a satire on reality TV which questions why people choose to watch it even when it involves nothing but suffering. It highlights how easily viewers forget that the people whom they are watching are fellow human beings and emphasises the importance of holding on to what makes us an individual person, such as our names.

Another reality-TV show was about to begin. It would have been just more of the same had it not been set in a death camp and called Concentration (the Nazi imagery is prevalent throughout the book). Anyone could be a participant, or more precisely a prisoner. People, young and old, were picked at random on the streets and then piled into a cattle-truck. Pannonique was “selected” while strolling around the Jardin des Plantes.

More care was taken when choosing the guards. Zdena, who was given the post of Kapo, had to fill in a questionnaire and prove that she could beat and insult people. None of the principles of the show shocked her. While at the camp, she developed an obsession with Pannonique. She beat her regularly and wanted to know her real name, since prisoners at the camp were only known by numbers and letters. Pannonique, who soon became a star thanks to her beauty and the assured way in which she behaved, was the prisoner CKZ 114. Continue reading

‘História da Menina Perdida’ (‘The Story of the Lost Child’) by Elena Ferrante

My rating: 4 stars

The first three books in The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (about which there are spoilers ahead) – cast light on Elena and Lila’s convoluted and fascinating friendship. The last instalment in the series, História da Menina Perdida (The Story of the Lost Child in the English translation), is no exception in that respect. However, it also heavily focuses on the complex relationship between mothers and daughters, all while painting a clear picture of the Neapolitan society of the time.

In this forth instalment, the story resumes the moment after Elena left her husband, Pietro Airota, and went with Nino Sarratore to Montpellier, where he had to attend a congress. While there, she phoned Pietro, whom informed her that the two girls didn’t want her to be their mother anymore. That hurt Elena. Nevertheless, when she returned to Florence, her daughters welcomed her with enthusiasm. Their reaction wasn’t as cheerful when, after a while, she told them that she needed to go to Naples.

Elena’s life was in turmoil. Her little book was going to be published in France, she wanted to separate from her husband, and also needed to decide on a place to live with her daughters. The last thing that she wanted was to meet up with Lila again. While she was in Naples, though, Lila insisted on talking with her and Nino. They met at a café and then went to the Solara’s shoe store, where awaiting Elena were the friends from her old neighbourhood. Elena came to believe that Lila didn’t exert as much power over her as she used to when they were younger, although she feared that Nino could still be interested in her. Continue reading

‘At the Mountains of Madness’ by H.P. Lovecraft

My rating: 3 stars

A novella that mixes sci-fi with horror, At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft is at first unnerving and even suspenseful. However, after the discovery made by the characters is revealed (early on), the book becomes far less eerie and more tedious. The narrator repeats many times that he wishes no one ever to return to the place that he has been to in Antarctica, but the author failed to convey the importance of that warning by genuinely unsettling readers.

The narrator was part of an expedition to Antarctica. Being a geologist, he hoped to collect various samples of rock and soil. He wasn’t at all prepared for the discovery that the first group that went to the dubbed ‘Mountains of Madness’ made. Not only did they locate one of the world’s greatest mountains, but they also discovered within them, frozen in a cave, an unknown species that they at first believed to be a mix between the animal and vegetable classes. When the narrator got the news from his colleagues’ discovery, he eagerly decided to join them. But what he witnessed there made him want to prevent people from setting foot in there again.

The place they discovered is painstakingly depicted. The descriptions of the mountains are detailed (albeit too verbose), make it easy to visualise them, and in a way serve as a symbol of the terror that the characters felt. Continue reading