Author Yann Martel could be forgiven for wondering if there would be life after Pi, given the smash success of his book Life of Pi.
Almost everyone loved Life of Pi – it has even been made into a blockbuster film. I say almost everyone, as truth be told, I was not that much of a fan. And a shared rite of passage road trip with my husband (watching the film of the book on a tiny screen on a bus jolting from Pnomh Penh to Siem Riep in Cambodia) didn’t do it any favours either. It was a trip as far removed from cool waters and tigers as it was possible to be. To this day there are small pockets of Cambodian dust nestled in my luggage. I can picture us still, sitting jammed into seats designed for daintier people, with our individual thought bubbles whimpering “We should have flown. We should have flown”.
So I was ready, in a clean-slate kind of way, for Martel’s next offering The High Mountains of Portugal. Devoid of tigers, small boats and large oceans, Martel has instead turned his prodigious story-telling talents to include three interlocking tales, all set in Portugal and all involving love, loss and the meaning of life. It is at one and the same time an intricate, yet mesmerising read. If I do not allow myself to become too distracted by certain wierdnesses (take backward walking, the Jesus Christ/Agatha Christie connection and the Iberian Rhinoceros for example), I would sum it up as follows:
In any life, there will be some bad times of loss and heartbreak
You will need to be able to ask for help
You will need to be specific with your requests for said help
Help will also come from unexpected quarters
Always read the instruction manual carefully
A lot of your problems you will have brought upon yourself
While you yourself are hurting, you are still capable of inflicting great harm on others
It is such a rare read, that in the end you may find yourself falling back on prior reading connections to make any sense of it all. It reminded me of the magical realism of 100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and the poem Kindness by my favourite poet Naomi Shahib Nye. But mostly what it did not remind me of was the author’s previous novel, Life of Pi.
And one final point – nowadays we are all keen to trumpet what great films certain books would make. I can tell you with absolute certainty that I do not believe The High Mountains of Portugal will ever be made into a film.
I spend a lot of time poking around the interwebs, reading blogs and reviews, and scanning websites like amazon, angryrobot and fantasticfiction for upcoming titles. (Tough job, I know etc etc). It’s not often that I find a book I want to read that the library selectors haven’t already purchased, and often when I do, and the library buys it on my recommendation, it turns out to be either embarrassingly awful or just like 12 other titles we already own.
Occasionally, though, I get it right, and feel incredibly pleased with myself, and then need to share my triumph with the world. So. Pardon me while I wax lyrical about Adam McOmber’s This New and Poisonous Air.
It’s a bit posh, a bit literary, a bit fairy tale steampunk horror romance adventure; all wrapped up in a slim dark volume (see, now I’M getting all posh) of short stories. Reviewers have used words like fantastical and macabre, and made comparisons to Poe, Angela Carter, even Tim Burton; while Publishers Weekly talks about its “sinuous, antiquated style”.
What it reminds ME most of, however, is a collection of fairy tales that I used to read as a child. Way before the Disneyfication of every old fable and fairy tale, we had a matched set of bound volumes that collected fairy tales and legends from around the world. One in particular that I remember reading over and over was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, and this is the story that was constantly in my head as I was reading McOmber’s short stories.
If you’re a fan of magic realism, remember wistfully the grown-up versions of fairy tales before Disney, or just want to step out of this world for a few minutes, grab a copy of This New and Poisonous Air and find a quiet place to read. I promise you won’t be disappointed!
A book recommendation for those cold Christchurch winter nights – the Times Literary Supplement calls it “A glorious piece of work… The narrative has a splendid ripe momentum, and each descriptive touch contributes a pang of vividness.”
This novel focuses on the life and exploits of its main female character, known as Fevvers. Fevvers is – or so she would have us believe – a Cockney virgin, hatched from an egg laid by unknown parents ready to develop fully fledged wings. The story takes place in 1899 at which point she is a celebrated aerialiste, an outrageous performer who captivates the young journalist Jack Walser during an interview. Walser runs away with the circus to better pursue and understand his fascination with Fevvers but falls into a world that he is ill prepared for.
This novel contains an assortment of weird and wonderful background characters: a sisterhood of prostitutes, a one-eyed madam who dresses as Admiral Nelson, side-show freaks, circus performers, prescient pigs, contract writing chimps, dancing tigers, shamans and escaped female inmates of a Siberian prison, to name but a few.
Read this! Your regrets will be few and your wonder tangible!