The High Mountains of Portugal is split into three parts, each part making up a different era of the 20th century, connected through the isolated region in Portugal they all concern. A man journeys there in search of a forgotten religious artifact in the first; a pathologist performs an autopsy while the deceased’s widow observes in the second; and, in the third, a man moves from Canada to his ancestral home in Portugal with his newly acquired pet ape. Each deals with unique ways individuals cope with grief, and how it significantly affects the world around them.
The initial things that struck me, that surprised me, given the very outlandish and intriguing plot were the sterility of the prose and the severe lack of subtlety that plague the entire first part. I mean, it wasn’t so bad that I stopped reading, but it sure made the journey through those first 130-odd pages pretty tedious. Well, stick with it I did, and I sure am glad that I did. Martel finds a passion, cultivates intrigue, and allows a poignant magic to blossom and grow throughout Part 2, not unlike that of his wonderful Life of Pi. This definitely makes The High Mountains of Portugal worth the read, though I’m sad to say this doesn’t carry into the third part. And that’s not to say that the third part is offensive in any way, but it dances between the barren Part 1, the charming Part 2, and a bit of a silliness that comes across as rather jarring when held up against the book’s heavier moments.
So, this begs some important questions. Is the book good? When everything comes together, absolutely. Is it great? Part of it is, at least, but, as a whole, I wouldn’t call it great. Is it worth reading? I’d say so, though it would largely depend on how patient a reader you would call yourself.