Over fourteen years after his crowd-pleasing Booker Prize winning “Life Of Pi” it looks as if Canadian author Yann Martel is back on top form with his latest novel. He is a great story teller and like all great storytellers he is able to draw us in by weaving a tale which is surreal, believably unbelievable and manages to feel both real and allegorical.
The book is divided into three sections with three different time-spans. Both the first and third feature extraordinary journeys which Martel has already shown us with “Life Of Pi” that this is an area where he excels. The first section “Homeless” is set at the start of the twentieth century where a grief-stricken man whose loss has caused him to walk backwards begins a car journey into the High Mountains of Portugal. He has borrowed one of the first cars and many of the villagers he encounters have never seen one before. Add to this Tomas has no idea how to drive or control the car and you get a tale which is laugh-out loud funny. I think anyone who enjoys the preposterous humour of books such as “The 100 Year Old Man Who Man Who Climbed Out The Window” will lap this up.
There’s a change of tone and time in the second section “Homeward”. It’s the early hours of New Year’s Day 1939 and a Portuguese pathologist is working late, This is a very dark, surreal section which posits Agatha Christie as a new apostle!
In the third immensely likeable section “Home” there is a modern day journey from Canada to Portugal with a grieving politician and a chimpanzee. If this all sounds bonkers, well it is, but it’s also captivating. Martel is great at putting pictures into the reader’s head. One way of achieving this is by lists of nouns which can imbue his writing with a deceptive simplicity. The characters (like Pi) all tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves and so are often disarmingly charming. The three sections do tie together, although when reading them it seems unlikely that they will. There are echoes of each section throughout which is both skilful and impressive.
I’m actually usually resistant to this type of tall tale but Martel has the ability to draw me in. If you are involved in a reading group this would be an ideal choice as there are so many layers to discuss and so many possible interpretations for those who want to see it as something other than a rollicking good read. When the film of “Life Of Pi” was released I re-read the book not believing that it had won me over, so odd is the concept, and it was even better on a re-read. And this, I think, might very well be the case for this book. If I tell you I enjoyed this more than my first read of “Life Of Pi” you will appreciate that this is very much a book to look out for.
The High Mountains Of Portugal is published by Canongate in February 2016. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.