This is the story of a village in Portugal, told through the lives of men and women whose families have lived there for generations and some who are passing through. For Teresa, a beautiful girl not yet twenty, Mamarrosa is a place from which to escape. For the dysfunctional Potts family, it is a way of running from trouble. Vasco, a café owner who has never recovered from the death of his American wife, clings to a notion that his years away from the village, in the States, make him superior. One English tourist fantasizes about making a new life here; for her compatriots, a young engaged couple, this is where their dreams fall apart. The village awaits the homecoming of its prodigal son, now a symbol of the fast-changing world. When he finally returns, villagers, tourists, and expatriates are brought together, and their jealousies and disappointments inevitably collide.--From publisher description.
Perhaps the best way to describe this novel is to consider one of the quotes Ali chooses to place at the beginning of the novel, from Jose Saramago, the esteemed Portuguese novelist:
“Villages are like people, we approach them slowly, a step at a time.”
For this is exactly what Ali does in Alentejo Blue, which is centered around a fictional village in the Alentejo region of Portugal , called Mamarrosa. Each chapter of the novel examines a small group of people who live in, or visit, this village. Ali approaches her characters and the stories of their lives with a slow, steady hand and a surefooted grace. This is a novel that is meant to be savored.
The novel begins with the story of Joao and Rui. Joao finds his old friend, at the age of eighty-four, hanging from a tree. As Joao cuts his friend down and tenderly ministers to him, he recalls their shared past – meeting on a hot and dusty bus headed to a town to find work, sleeping in poverty on the streets, listening to inflammatory oratories shouted out from prison cells, later as old men, playing ball in the park and ribbing one another with ancient jokes and barbs. It is the story of a lifelong friendship, and of a poignant secret love. Their story, with all its tenderness and regret, is easily powerful enough to stand on its own as a short story.
Vasco's café is one of the village of Mamarrosa 's gathering places. Its eponymous owner compulsively wipes the counters and tables with a dirty rag, dreaming of the time he once ventured to America to work in a restaurant. Old men gather by the bar to spin their familiar tales. A young English girl, Ruby Potts, lounges seductively, adolescent in a short skirt and unfortunate hearing aid, trying to maximize her youthful appeal and attract men. Stanton, an English writer, frequents the place and tries hard to avoid staring at Ruby while debating with his plumber, Dieter, about whether he should pay for services rendered if the faucet leaks. It is as if Vasco's Café is a microcosm of the idiosyncrasies of the village of Mamarrosa.
The Potts boy, Ruby's younger brother, Jay, takes to following Stanton around, which is fine with Stanton on days when he isn't inclined to work, but Jay is persistent and becomes such a fixture on Stanton 's doorstep that soon his mother, Chrissie Potts, comes to Stanton 's house to investigate. Stanton is mildly attracted to Chrissie, but it is not until her husband, China Potts, asks to borrow his truck requiring a visit to the Potts house, that Stanton is truly implicated. Stanton helps China pull a dead cow out of a ditch, and afterwards, they repair to the Potts house for beer and conversation of a sort. Chrissie negotiates a solitary walk with Stanton while China and Jay are busy with the goats, and they engage in quick, silent sex against a wall behind the Potts house. After this, Jay and Chrissie compete for Stanton 's attention, and the writer wonders how he will ever finish his book on William Blake.
Eileen is a middle-aged woman from England , visiting Mamarrosa on holiday with her husband, who is the sort of man who admonishes her to practice rationality and reason and questions her sanity habitually as a way of making himself feel better about the world. She wants to soak up the local color and appreciate the quiet beauty of everyday things, while he frets that they aren't actually “doing anything” on their trip.
Teresa is a young woman, blooming with the endless possibilities of youth, who has grown up in Mamarrosa. She works in a shop, and is courted by a boy from the village, Antonio. On the surface, her life appears to be following the same basic plan that villagers from Mamarrosa have followed for centuries. Underneath the surface, however, she is harboring an exciting secret – she has been accepted as a nanny for a family from London , and soon the world will be at her beck and call. The quiet village life is not for her. She will leave her mother and Antonio behind while she seeks out the life she was truly meant to have.
The lives of these and other characters in Alentejo Blue intertwine. Everything comes to a head with the opening of the new Internet café, and with the Mamarrosa festa, held annually in November. Both events pit Marco, a villager who has long since left Mamarrosa behind, and the cousin of Eduardo, who owns the Internet café, against the habits and attitudes of the villagers who have remained behind. It is with this juxtaposition that Ali shows that in small villages all over the globe, to use a trite but true phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Monica Ali is a beautiful writer, and it is evident in this novel that she has drawn her characters with tender precision. She has lovingly crafted each of their stories vividly – the reader is able to experience Mamarrosa with all the senses, to truly imagine what life there would be like. It is a wonderful achievement, and a very worthy companion to Brick Lane.
Of all the stories, Vasco's is the most beautiful, and most painful.
There is a theme of "old" world vs. "new" - highlighted by the elderly, traditional members of the village vs. the youth and tourists. Change is in the air, but it is unclear whether it will be for the best, or will simply disrupt the flow of village life.
Ali's lyrical prose transports the reader into the countryside of Portugal.
'The plains spread out on either side. Here and there a cork oak stood grieving. The land rose and fell in modest dimensions. Now and again a gleam of machinery, glittering drops of water on an acacia, a giant eucalyptus shedding its splintery scrolls. Field upon field upon field, wheat and grass and fallow, on and on and on, and in this flat composition there was a depth, both sadness and tremulous joy.' -From Alentejo Blue, page 163-
This novel was listed as a 2006 New York Times Most Notable book - and I think it is deserving of that honor. Ali is a gifted writer with great understanding and sensitivity to her characters - picking up Alentejo Blue was like relaxing into small town life, chatting with the neighbors and observing the ebb and flow of the days beneath a Portugal sun. I will be reading more of Ali's novels in the future.
Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5
Monica Ali's second book is a collection of stories set in the Alentejo province of Portugal, linked by characters and by a vivid sense of place and time.
Teresa is a beautiful young girl from the village who is supposed to marry a suitable man from the same community but who wants to see the world. Vasco is a café owner who is losing business to the new internet café down the road. The unseemly, dysfunctional, but strangely riveting Potts are a family of ex-patriots, trying to cobble a life together, at odds with one another until they run into trouble on the outside. We also meet several English tourists: a young couple engaged to be married and confronting each others weaknesses and idiosyncrasies for the first time, and an older woman imagining a new life, fantasizing about never returning home.
I enjoyed the language of what is certainly a talent for years to come. There is a scene involving the towing of a cow that I will not quickly forget.
What I liked about the book are the descriptions of the village, the local pub, the little shop, the gossip, the old men hanging around. It seemed realistic to me as a tourist. But then again, it would be interesting to know what a Portuguese villager would think of that!
Having said that, this is definitely no great work of literature, and it didn't really touch me or inspire me.