Two very different books: The Nightingale and The High Mountains of Portugal


The Nightingale   by Kristin Hannah

This book is usually mentioned in the various top fiction lists for 2014 and it didn’t disappoint.  It is the story of two French sisters, Vianne and Isabella living in different French cities as the Nazis take over the country. Their mother dies when Isabella is four and Vianne is in her early teens. Their father is incapable of caring for them and sends them off to another home to be brought up. The sisters are not close given their age difference and personalities but both crave their father’s love –  a useless pursuit.

As the war closes in on them, Vianne’s husband enlists in the army leaving her and their daughter to fend for themselves in occupied France.  Both sisters initially flounder. Isabella wants to do something but can’t seem to figure out how to make an impact and Vianne with how to live without her husband during wartime.  We follow their stories through the Nazi occupation. Vianne has Nazi soldiers residing in her house and a Jewish best friend who is taken away.  She leaves her small son with Vianne to protect and hide. Isabella falls in love with a Resistance fighter and soon becomes one of the most storied fighters herself  (she becomes known as the Nightingale) as she leads downed pilots across the border to safety.

The book is apparently based loosely on a true story.  It moves between one of the sister’s in the 1990s in America and the back-story of the two women. You are never sure which sister is telling the story until near the end of the book. The time differences allow for the stories to be concluded in a really nice way.  For all the World War II novel lovers out there, this book about the Nazi occupation of France and the resistance fighters brings a different perspective on the war.   The focus is not on the concentration camps although they play a peripheral role. Vianne and Isabella become unlikely heroes illustrating the theme that even the most average individual can rise to great heights in times of crisis. It is also a story of survival and what it takes to not give up. I enjoyed it immensely but I am a sucker for good World War II novels.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I was excited to get my hands on this new book by the author of “Life of Pi” which is one of my all time favorites. Martel’s newest novel has had pretty good reviews, which made my anticipation greater. Unfortunately for me, I found it to be tough going – particularly the first of the three stories that the book is divided into. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I really hated that first part but the book grew on me as I progressed. It probably wasn’t light enough reading for a summer vacation so I’ll just say up front, if you land up reading this, try it in winter when you are more likely to appreciate all the symbolism and craziness of the novel.

The book is actually 3 short  loosely connected novellas centered on grief, religion and primates. The first is the longest, which was clear as soon as I started and my Kindle showed that the chapter was over two and one half hours. This section centers on Tomas who loses his wife, child and father in quick succession. In his attempt to deal with his grief, he takes off in 1904 in his uncle’s state of the art automobile (which is a rarity at that time) to the “high mountains of Portugal”.   He is in search of a crucifix mentioned in a diary of a 17th century priest that Tomas uses for inspiration. Tomas, knowing nothing about cars has a continual series of disasters with the auto, which are humorous to some but to me were just painful. Oh….and he walks backwards all the time – I guess it is symbolic of walking away from the world but I don’t want to have to work so hard on vacation at understanding a book.

The second tale went better for me – probably because it was about half as long! This section highlights a pathologist working at his lab late at night when his wife visits and goes on and on and on with an analogy of Agatha Christie novels and their similarity to Jesus and the gospels. Having only read a few of her novels over 50 years ago, I remembered nothing about them and just glazed over this analysis. It was clear pretty quickly that his wife was dead … like section 1, there is a dead wife and some walking backward. Unlike Section 1, there is another woman with the same name as his wife who carried her dead husband in a suitcase and I’ll save you from what happened next but it was still better than the first story and did involve a primate.

I only read the third section so I could write this review and give potential readers a warning about the book however, it moved much more quickly for me and was the closest reminder I had to Life of Pi. I can almost say I enjoyed the story of a man (Peter) who loses his wife (sound familiar?) and adopts a Chimpanzee (sound familiar?), and moves from Canada to the” high mountains of Portugal” (apparently there aren’t any “high mountains” in Portugal which is some more symbolism lost on me) to get away from his grief and start a new life with his Chimp Odo.  He lands up in what turns out to be the house of his ancestors where there is an Agatha Christie book that has significance.  The third chapter connects a number of the themes and characters in the first two sections and it all makes marginally more sense by the end of the book which did bring some satisfaction and I felt better about the novel.

I probably won’t pick up another Yann Martell book anytime soon.  It is not surprising to me that the Goodreads scores were very polarized. I saw a lot of 4 and 5s from those who loved the book and just as many ones and twos from those who did not. What I didn’t see were many threes. Either people loved it or hated it. I really disliked the first story but came around on the second two. Sometimes you just aren’t in the right frame of mind for a book and I suspect that this may be one of them. I almost feel like if I picked this book up again at a different point in time, I might have much more appreciation for it. I doubt I’ll do that as I don’t think I could stand to read that first chapter again even knowing how the stories interrelate and understanding some of they mysticism and symbolism in the story.   Clearly many readers and critics love this book and if you are into heavy symbolism and the bizarre, you might well really like it – otherwise, I’d steer clear.







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