Three grieving men’s odysseys fitfully interconnect in this latest meditation on loss, faith, and belonging from Martel (Beatrice and Virgil, 2010, etc.).
In December 1904, Tomás leaves Lisbon in a new car he hardly knows how to drive. Since the deaths a year ago of his servant lover, their young son, and his father, he has become obsessed with the 17th-century diary of a Portuguese priest stationed in Africa who wrote of making a special kind of crucifix that Tomás believes ended up in the high mountains of Portugal. After a long journey that makes vividly palpable the perils of early-20th-century motoring, he finds the crucifix, makes a dramatic pronouncement about it that reveals his personal fury at the god who robbed him of everyone he loved—and this first portion of the novel abruptly ends. Cut to New Year’s Eve 1938, as pathologist Eusebio Lozora, catching up on work at the hospital, receives an odd visit from his devoutly religious wife and an even odder one from a woman carrying a suitcase containing her dead husband’s body, on which she insists Eusebio immediately perform an autopsy. The autopsy’s outré results seem to have some link to the crucifix Tomás found, but rather than elucidating, Martel piles on more bizarre developments before once again chopping off his narrative with multiple dangling ends. Both of these sections are extremely readable, with strongly developed characters whose intriguing stories make it frustrating when they are truncated. This authorial strategy might be acceptable if the third section, set in 1981—which features human/animal interaction as provocative and moving as the one in Martel’s mega-selling Life of Pi (2001)—drew together these narrative strands in a way that made sense of the novel’s spiritual and artistic themes. Instead, we get by-the-numbers connections of incidents and family relations that obscure Martel’s much more interesting musings on how we deal with tragedy and find our true home.
Provocative ideas straitjacketed in an overdetermined plot.