I received this book as a gift and it was a wonderful surprise. I had recently watched a video of Life of Pi and enjoyed it very much. I had also read Beatrice & Virgil and found it even more satisfying.
The High Mountains of Portugal is divided into three sections with very intriguing titles: Homeless, Homeward and Home. The book jacket blurb writes that it is “part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable” and it “offers a haunting exploration of great love and great loss. Filled with tenderness, humour, and endless surprise, it takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century – and through the human soul.”
The tenderness, humour, and endless surprise becomes almost immediately apparent in the first few pages after the opening sentence: “Tomás decides to walk.” He is going to walk across much of Lisbon to his uncle’s estate in “leafy Lapa” which will take about an hour. As he starts out we learn some things about his past and the reason he is walking backwards. His uncle believes that Tomás is grieving but Tomás explains that he is not grieving but rather he is objecting because everything cherished by him in life has been taken away and there is nothing left for him to do but object. This will all be explained to the reader on the walk.
In the breast pocket of his jacket, Tomás carries an old leather diary which is the life and instructions for Father Ulisses Manuel Rosario Pinto for the gift he has left for the Portugese empire. Tomás found the diary very shortly before his life as he knew it was changed forever. Tomás works as an assistant curator at the National Museum of Ancient Art.
In Father Ulisses’ diary, Tomás finds references that prove the father is afflicted by “acute homesickness”. He also eventually finds two letters requesting a gift for a parish in the High Mountains of Portugal which had suffered the destruction by fire of its chancel. He also finds verification of the crucifix having been sent from the African colonies. Tomás wrote letters and narrowed the possibilities before deciding that he must make a journey to the High Mountains of Portugal.
And so he goes to his uncle’s house and he finds that his uncle is loaning him one of his latest acquisitions: a brand new four-cylinder Renault which he describes as “a masterpiece of engineering”. The only appeal for Tomás in this offer comes from the fact that he has only ten days to accomplish his search for the crucifix. This is happening in 1904 in Lisbon, Portugal, where only “a few of these newfangled devices have lately found their way onto the streets.” For Tomás, this “burgundy-coloured copy” “lacks in any elegance or symmetry” and “its cabin appears to him absurdly oversized compared to the puny stable at the aft into which are stuffed the thirty horses”.
His uncle explains how the car works and Tomás “understands nothing” and “stares dumbly” while his uncle presents him with a manual in French and a French-Portugese dictionary and adds “You must take utmost care to lubricate the automobile properly.” The only thing he likes is the horn, the sound of which makes him laugh.
You will enjoy Tomás’s driving experiences from your vantage point of 2016 and you will find his discovery of the crucifix equally intriguing.
In Part Two, the reader meets Eusebio Lozora, physician and pathologist, in 1938, in Bragança which has a population of 30,000. His wife is Maria Luisa Motaal Lozora who is an “amateur theologian” and takes herself very seriously. His wife “has no patience for death.” She comes to his office on New Year’s Eve and tells him that she has found the solution in the Agatha Christie novels which they both like to read. She brings him a new Christie novel to help him live with both faith and reason: “stories that put reason on brilliant display while also keeping you close to Jesus of Nazareth. That way you can hold on to your faith, should it ever waver.” After she leaves, someone knocks and he thinks she has returned but it is another Maria: Maria Dores Passos Castro. Eusebio performs an autopsy on Maria’s husband with unusual results which reveal a connection with the past and the future.
And thus we come to Part Three, Home. It begins in Toronto in 1981 and is Peter Tovy’s story. He is appointed to the Senate and moves to Ottawa. His wife Clara becomes deathly ill and his son Ben (a medical researcher) separates from his wife and she and his daughter move to Vancouver.
After Clara’s death, Peter realizes he cannot continue in the senate and goes to Oklahoma with three members of parliament and on an open day in the schedule visits a chimpanzee sanctuary, the Institute for Primate Research. Circumstances come about that see him visiting the main population of chimpanzees: “here, inside this windowless building, there is the reality of a dark and dank underworld. The smell hits Peter first, an animal reek of piss and misery, the tang of it made fierce by the heat. ”
“Some cages are empty, but many are not, and those that are not contain one thing and one thing only: a large black chimpanzee.”
“An ear-splitting explosion of shrieking and screaming greets them. Raw fear grips Peter. His breathing is cut short and he stands rooted to the spot.”
Eventually Peter is able to observe the chimpanzees more steadily.They display various levels of aggression or agitation. Peter stops by the cage of the last prisoner because he is struck by the creature’s singular behaviour. Peter looks into the eyes and the creature looks back into his eyes. He hears a hoo-hoo sound. The guide explains that it means hello.
The ape eventually squeezes Peter’s hand without grasping or menace. “Peter doesn’t know why, but his throat tightens and he feels close to tears. Is it that no one since Clara has looked at him like that, fully and frankly, the eyes like open doors?” The ape’s name is Odo. Peter pays fifteen thousand dollars for him and takes him to the High Mountains of Portugal.
You really must read this story for yourself! It will change your life and/or your thoughts.
This trilogy includes The Black House, The Lewis Man and The Chess Men. Peter May “was an award-winning journalist at the age of twenty-one” and “he left newspapers for television and screenwriting, creating three prime-time British drama series”. “Peter now lives in France where he focuses on writing novels”. (from the bio inside The Chess Men)
These are stories of considerable interest but I found myself most attracted by their setting in the Hebrides Islands and considered the plot an added bonus. (Which it was of course!)
Th epigraphs for The Black House include an A.E.Housman from “Blue Remembered Hills”:
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”
There is also a Gaelic proverb: Three things that come without asking: fear, love and jealousy.
In this first book Fin Macleod is a cop in Edinburgh and is sent back to Lewis Island to solve a murder there and, of course, journey into his own difficult history on the islands.
The epigraph for The Lewis Man is from “The Old Fools” by Philip Larkin:
That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
From the Prologue of The Lewis Man: “On this storm-washed island three hours off the north-west coast of Scotland, what little soil exists gives the people their food and their heat. It also takes their dead. and, very occasionally, as today, gives one up.” The people have gone peat-cutting and young Annag’s eyes follow her brothers “down to the fallen peat bank and the arm that lies stretched out towards her, leathery skin like brown parchment, fingers curled as if holding an invisible ball. One leg lies twisted over the other, a head tipped towards the ditch as if in search of a lost life, black holes where the eyes should have been.
For a moment, she is lost in a sea of incomprehension, before realisation washes over her, and the scream is whipped from her mouth by the wind.”
And so begins The Lewis Man in which Fin has left the police in Edinburgh and returned to Lewis and is working on restoring his parents’ croft. A DNA test determines that the corpse above is a familial match to the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart.
“Gunn saw the vehicles parked at the roadside from some distance away. The sky was black and blue, brooding, contused, rolling in off the ociean low and unbroken. The first spits of rain were smeared across his windscreen by the intermittent passage of its wipers. The pewter of the ocean itself was punctuated by the whites of breaking waves ten or fifteen feet high, and the solitary blue flashing light of the police car next to the ambulance was swallowed into insignificance by the vastness of the landscape.
Beyond the vehicles, the harled houses of Siader huddled against the prevailing weather, expectant and weary, but accustomed to its relentless assault. Not a single tree broke the horizon. Just lines of rotting fenceposts along the roadside, and the rusting remains of tractors and cars in deserted yards. Blasted shrubs showing brave green tips clung on with stubborn roots to thin soil in anticipation of better days to come, and a sea of bog cotton shifted in ripples and currents like water in the wind.”
This book ends with Whistler and Fin and the third book, The Chess Men is all about Fin and Whistler and their later lives. The epigraph is:
‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays. -the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, xlix
This final part of Fin’s story is as much about music and the Celtic band that Fin was closely associated with in his early university years and his friend Whistler who of all the group was the one who was gifted in so many ways but the one who chose not to attend university and to make the island his home. The chess men were larger than life chess men that he, Whistler, had carved and who are an intimate part of the story in this third volume.
Early in this book, Whistler and Fin are out camping and discover a lost loch which Whistler explains might have drained into another loch and was likely connected with a bog burst. The weight of the water in the higher loch can burst through a layer of amphiloblite and all the material drains down into into a deeper valley. When Fin examines the bottom of the lock with Whistler’s binoculars and sites a “small, single-engined aircraft, cradled among a cluster of boulders, and lying at a slight angle. It appeared to be pretty much intact. The windows of the cockpit were opaque with mud and slime, but the red and white of the fuselage were clearly visible. As were the black-painted letters of its call-sign.”
They know the call-sign and so they go to have a look. And that is where it all begins. A fantastic trio for those with an interest in mysteries which have settings as characters and characters who are of considerable interest!
The epigraphs (3) are important so I will choose only one:
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.”
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I like the combo of lovers and madmen and the thought of their “seething brains” as well as the idea that the fantasies of these brains understand intuitively much more than is understood through reason alone.
Having read this epigraph we walk right into the first sentence: “Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace to begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they’re lucky to have any kind of car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.”
And what about the lovers and the madmen? Well, Charmaine gets the back seat and Stan takes the smaller front seat but that’s because he has to be prepared to drive away at any minute in case of an emergency such as an attempted robbery by “bat-shit crazy” vandals. Stan “feels so lonely and sometimes having Charmaine with him makes him feel lonelier. He’s let her d0wn.”
They both had good jobs not so long ago. Charmaine worked at the Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics chain. She scheduled entertainment and special events. Stan had been a junior quality control person at Dimple Robotics, “testing the Empathy Module in the automated Customer Fulfillment models. People didn’t just want their groceries bagged, he used to explain to Charmaine: they wanted a total shopping experience, and that included a smile.” Smiles were hard but if you got it just right, Stan explained, “they’d spend extra”.
Then it happened. Charmaine was declared redundant at Ruby Slippers and Dimple Robotics closed its doors and moved west. They ran out of mortgage money and their credit cards were frozen. They walked out and drove away before the car was repossessed. Charmaine got a job in a bar and her savings kept them in gas and paid for a post office box so Stan could apply for jobs and they could wash their clothes at a laundromat occasionally. Stan decides to approach his brother for a loan.
At work in the PixelDust bar, Charmaine considers turning a few tricks to increase their savings but decides it is too dangerous and would destroy Stan.
Con gives Stan two hundred dollars and offers him a job which Stan turns down because it is probably criminal in nature.
Then Charmaine, watching television at work, sees an ad which is different from the others. She thinks the presenter must be reading her mind. “”Tired of living in your car?” he says to her….”You deserve better.”” The man encourages her to recall what her life used to be like and offers a solution.
“At the Positron Project in the town of Consilience it can be like that again. We offer not only full employment but also protection from the dangerous elements that afflict so many at this time. Work with like-minded others! Help solve the nation’s problems of joblessness and crime while solving your own! Accentuate the positive!”
“The Positron Project is accepting new members now,” says the man. “If you meet our needs, we’ll meet yours. We offer training in many professional areas. Be the person you’ve always wanted to be! Sign up now.”
Sandi and Veronica, Charmaine’s fellow workers who do turn tricks on the side, also listen to the ad. Veronica thinks they should try it but Sandi says there are no free lunches anywhere. All three are seriously weighing the options available to them in their present lives.
They all sign up and they all go on the promotional bus trip which takes them some distance into the countryside where “only the gas stations appear functional”. Eventually they reach a gateway in a high black-glass wall. Solar generation, thinks Stan. Smart, building it in like that.”
“Their eyes are scanned and their fingerprints taken and a plastic passcard with a number on it and a barcode is issued to each of them.” Then they are driven through the town of Consilience which is like a town in a movie of several years ago before most of them were born. At the Harmony Hotel they have drinks and snacks in the ballroom. The crowd thins out during the evening which Stan observes and thinks is a “discreet weeding”. The remainder receive a room reservation and meal vouchers and a carafe of wine and a meal in a restaurant called Together.
Stan has decided that it is not real but doesn’t want to spoil things for Charmaine who reminds him how much better this is that the back seat of a car.
This is only the beginning of course and it is dystopian fiction. You can take it on a number of different levels. If you so choose, you can see it as an absolutely crazy, wild, highly imaginative romp though a world of Marilyn Monro and Elvis Presley clones who appear in groups to entertain the clients in Ruby Slippers retirement homes along with a subplot with people who live and work in Positron/Consilience spending alternate months as staff employees in the facility and prisoners in the same facility where possibilibots were manufactured. Or, you can take it much more seriously realizing that the best comedy is always very serious.
The logic behind the project: “it was time share taken to its logical conclusion.” “Think of the savings, with every dwelling serving two sets of residents!”
If you were living in your car with no hope what do you think would be your reaction to the television offer? Seriously…Could it happen? Heard of any folks losing their homes in recent history? Oh, you think it couldn’t happen here? Well, let’s hope not.
This novel was a very positive surprise. It operates on two quite different levels: the level at which most of us function most of the time and the level at which some of us operate some of the time in order to manage to survive.
On the level on which most of us function most of the time (or all of the time) there is a another life which exists which we don’t acknowledge to most of our friends. This is the level upon which the key characters in this novel function most of the time in order to be able to tolerate the rest of the world. The latter includes their parents.
The main characters are Gustav and Stanzi and the secondary characters are China Knowles and Lansdale Cruise. There are some minor characters and these include Patricia and Ken.
The first division is a prologue divided into three sections. Each section begins in a slightly different way:
1. Gavin is building a helicopter.
2. Gavin believes his helicopter is invisible, and because he believes it, it is so.
3. Gavin is building a red helicopter. It is not invisible. If I want I can see it on Tuesdays.
The above three divisions are all written by Stanzi who is Gustav’s best friend. Stanzi believes that Gustav is a genius but her mother, Mama, believes that Gustav is “mad crazy”. Mama “says lies about Gustav like “That boy isn’t right in the head” or “He’s going to end up in the looney tunes if he’s not careful.”
Stanzi’s parents, Mama and Pop, take vacations. Sometimes they take Stanzi who is a senior in high school. When they went to Newtown, Connecticut they wanted to go alone. They asked if she could heat up her own TV dinners and stay safe overnight. Newtown was where the 2013 Sandy Hook massacre was. Stanzi can’t go to anymore such sites. She has been to Columbine and Red Lake, Minnesota and even to Dunblane, Scotland. She can’t go to anymore.
“China says she can feel her cells. China is my best friend. China is inside out, so I bet she knows more about her cells than anyone.”
“Halfway to Gustav’s house, a man steps out from behind a bush and asks me if I want to buy an H. I say I do not. …How about a K? he asks. …I keep walking…but I can see the details that tell me he is an animal.”
“Sometimes when I look at Gustav, I can picture him twenty years from now with a wife and kids – all of them flying around in his helicopter. I write them letters. The whole family. I write them postcards from my parents’ creepy trips.”
The school has been getting bomb threats. The most recent one has been in a box and was sent with two things: a hex nut from a helicopter kit and a dehydrated frog liver. Suspicious? After the recorded message is finished, the students are escorted outside. The bomb threats come daily, sometimes twice daily. There is always a police car outside the school.
“I am China – the girl who swallowed herself. I just opened my mouth one day and wrapped it around my ears and the rest of me. Now I live inside myself. I can knock on my rib cage when it’s time to go to bed. I can squeeze my own heart. When I fart, no one else can smell it.
I write poems.
They look like those Salvador Dali paintings I saw in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
“Since the day I swallowed myself, I haven’t been in any trouble. I quit smoking. I don’t kiss any more boys. I got away from my skanky friends and I don’t log onto the Internet. It’s probably the best thing I ever did for myself apart from that time I ran from Irenic Brown last summer. But that’s another story, and girls who swallow themselves can’t tell stories. But I ran fast. I ran so, so fast.”
China continues: “Gustav told me in physics class yesterday that he’s not afraid to die. I thought about it all day. I think he’s bullshitting.
Gustav once wore snowshoes for a week because he learned about string theory and didn’t trust the molecular makeup of matter, and he says he’s not afraid to die? How can he think he’s fooling anyone? Everyone is afraid to die.”
And now from Stanzi: “Truth is, my name isn’t Stanzi. I only call myself Stanzi after watching the movie Amadeus too many times with Gustav. Truth is, my name doesn’t really matter. I’m a character in a movie. In your book. In your mind. I play tug-of-war. I am a coward and a soldier. I am a pacifist and a warmonger. I am behind the bush with the man who sells letters, and I tell him secrets about who sends bomb threats to the our school every day….Constanze was a braver woman that I am….I dare you to go back to 1779 and be seventeen years old. You would be searching for light switches and toilets. You’d kill for a thermostat. A refrigerator. A telephone. You would pray for a 50% survival rate for your babies, and when you were blessed with one who lived through infancy, I bet you would do more than standardize it with tests or plop it in front of the TV.”
Do you get it? Well, all of the above is only in the first 34 pages of the book so you have pages and pages to go before you sleep.
Deryn Collier’s first novel was Confined Space and it was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for best unpublished first crime novel by the Crime Writers of Canada. It was published in 2012. The novel takes place in Kootenay Landing, British Columbia and Collier’s bio states that she has worked in a brewery. The latter caught my attention because it adds to the author’s credentials for me somehow. The Bugaboo Brewery is one of the main employers in Kootenay Landing.
The investigator turns out to be the coroner which is another interesting choice. The police participate of course but the coroner is a more multifaceted individual and interacts with the community in a fuller way. The reader meets Bern Fortin in his garden where he is crouching down tapping yogurt container lids into the soil at the end of rows of late-harvest spinach he is growing for the food bank in time for Thanksgiving. In each of the plastic lids he is pouring a dose of Bugaboo Brew in an attempt to control the slugs who are attacking the spinach.
Bern was a former soldier (Lieutenant-Colonel) who had served tours in Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan. His native language was French and he had been in Kootenay Landing six months. His house was a tiny bungalow which he had modified to suit his needs. He could see the brewery from his front door.
Gardening was like therapy for Bern: he needed the peace associated with growing things and in beauty, colour and life itself.
His neighbour, Mrs. Kalesnikoff, had turned out to be better than any therapist he might have found. Flowers ran riot over the fence between Bern’s and Mrs. K’s property and he had been made welcome at her kitchen table any time of day. She made cinnamon buns the size of a person’s head. She says Bern doesn’t let the dead go (“She always said the exact number of words needed to get her point across, and never more.”
We are introduced to Bern and Mrs. K and also Gavin and Belinda as well as Evie Chapelle, Safety Manager, Bugaboo Brewery and Conrad Scofield. Collier does this introducing particularly well in my opinion. She gives enough information to acquaint us with each individual sufficiently to provide a basis for investing in them as individuals: sort of fits us into the community so to speak as if we had been there for awhile.
She sets us up by having Evie receive a certificate indicating that the Bugaboo Brewery has been given a Safety Award in recognition of 500 accident-free days.
And then the accident is discovered. An accident in confined spaces. More than one accident in confined spaces. But are they accidents?
The second Collier novel, aka the second Bern Fortin novel, is Open Secrets and like Confined Spaces there will be more than one secret involved:
“He looked back at the cranium on the rock and knew that it was related to everything else that was going on. Gary’s disappearance, Seymour’s death, Gia on the deck with a shotgun. Lennon’s shout: “The asshole is dead!” Even Holly Forsberg and her unspoken pain. They were all related – but how? And how much of it was his responsibility to sort out?
Who died, how they died, when they died, and by what manner. There was no room for doubt in the coroner’s crib sheet. That Gia was intelligent and witty, that he liked talking to her and admired her garden, that he did not want to cause Holly Forsberg more pain, that Dr. Sinclair did not want to be inconvenienced – these things didn’t factor in. It was a simple question: he had to find out the truth. Everyone’s secrets would come to light.
And if he was to expose their secrets, he had no business hanging on to his own.”
I am not quite finished this second book so I can’t reveal all those secrets. And I wouldn’t anyway of course!
If you enjoy accompanying the investigator every step of the way and trying to fit the pieces together as they are discovered, you’ll enjoy Deryn Collier’s books. I think you will also find Bern Fortin refreshing as a character. His background is one of the secrets in this second book adding an extra dimension to the story.