Review: The High Mountains of Portugal

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I am the only person in the world who hasn’t read Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. Or seen the movie.

And if I’m being honest, I don’t even really want to. I’ve heard that the whole thing is one big allegory and I’ve never been one for that kind of reading. My reading is mostly firmly rooted in reality: crime fiction, history, historical fiction, biographies, social sciences – that’s my wheelhouse.

Yet when I read the description of The High Mountains of Portugal, something about it struck me and I wanted to read it. It was this piece, in particular: “…a Portuguese pathologist, devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the centre of a murder mystery…”

I mean, Agatha Christie? Sold.


This book is quest driven. In the first section, entitled Homeless, Tomás, mired in grief over the deaths of his partner, their son and his father, discovers the journals of a priest in the 1600s and sets out to find a relic described therein. He believes that finding this relic will change everything. Tomás is angry at God and wants to embarrass him, to take away God’s son as God took his. His quest takes him to the High Mountains of Portugal, to a small village, an ancient church.

Years later the pathologist tries to  help a woman from this same village in the High Mountains of Portugal find out what happened to her husband. Her grief also sends her on a quest but not for any one thing, just for answers. I enjoyed the beginning of both of these sections, especially the discussion around Agatha Christie: And so the explanation for why Agatha Christie is the most popular author in the history of the world. Her appeal is as wide and her dissemination as great as the Bible’s because she’s a modern apostle, a female one – about time after two thousand years’ of men blathering on.

The final section follows Peter, in the wake of the death of his wife, leaving Canada and his job as a Senator for his family’s native Portugal with a strange companion: a chimpanzee named Odo who he has in effect rescued from a chimpanzee ‘sanctuary’. This was my favourite section, the one that I was most able to enjoy. It too dealt with the themes of grief and faith but in a much less heavy handed way. There was no preaching about God and Jesus in this one. Just a man trying to figure out how to live life without his life partner and finding salvation in a change of place and a new companion.

This book is strange. I almost gave up on it several times. I think I’m glad I stuck it out but only because I so enjoyed the story of Peter and Odo. There is no doubt that Martel is at the top of his game – he is a writer of unquestionable talent and clearly a very brilliant thinker. But it’s almost too intellectual for me. I’m not a reader that enjoys ruminating on the mysteries of faith and religion. Just tell me what happened. The second section was so graphic, with the play by play of an autopsy, that I almost stopped right there. And then it took such a strange turn when the body is opened up – almost like a fairy tale. The first section dealt so much with the actual mechanics of the first automobiles that I could feel my eyes glazing over.

I’m not the right audience for The High Mountains of Portugal but I know a few people that would love this book. I’m going to loan them this book asap.If you like extended metaphors and allegorical story telling, if you love a book with a healthy helping of the strange and can totally suspend your disbelief, I’m sure that you’ll enjoy this one.

17 thoughts on “Review: The High Mountains of Portugal

  1. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this one around before! Great review; I’m adding The High Mountains Of Portugal to my wishlist straight away.

  2. Many of Martel’s fans are not fans of his latest novel, actually. It’s gotten a mixed-reception and I’m not sure I want to read it either, despite having enjoyed Life of Pi.

    I appreciate honest reviews like yours. And you may be right that a “few people” (hehe) may enjoy this book. But overall, I have not been inspired to read this book. That’s unfortunate because I know he’s a greatly talented writer.

  3. So interesting to hear your perspective on this one! It does sound strange. And it’s fascinating to hear that even after finishing it, you’re still not totally certain about whether you’re glad you read it or not. I think I could skip the part about the autopsy….

  4. I just read an absolutely scathing review of this book in The Walrus, which, in the one hand, comes off as super snobby, like, the book is too middle brow and pandering to the masses. .. but I’m probably gonna feel the same way, I think. I liked Life of Pi but didn’t love it, & this one doesn’t sound as good. Enjoyed your review though.

  5. I read Life of Pi and was one of the few people who didn’t love it. I thought it was derivative. But i do want to read this one. I’m intrigued by the Agatha Christie angle, as you were, and I’ll admit it, the cover rocks. So i’ll give Mr Martel a try.

  6. I have been waiting to hear from bloggers about this book. It doesn’t seem to be around much, even though I’ve seen it on so many upcoming book lists. I’m thinking there must be a reason for that. I loved Life of Pi, but so far haven’t been convinced to read any of his others. Even if you can’t decide whether or not you’re happy you read this book, I’m happy you read it (for the rest of us)!
    Now I want to check out that scathing review in The Walrus!

  7. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this -but you’ve convinced me I need to give it a try. I couldn’t see how a book so different from the Life of Pi would be doable. I think I just have some 2nd book burnout if that makes sense. Maybe I need to try my first Agatha Christie before I pick this up though!

    • Get on the Agatha Christie already! When I was reading that section, which takes place when Agatha Christie is publishing in real time, I thought about how cool it would have been to have been around for NEW Agatha Christie books. To feel that same anticipation that I really only feel for JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith!

  8. I haven’t read Life of Pi, either! I did see the movie, though, and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t blown away or really pulled to read more of Martel’s books. He’s certainly well loved, though!

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