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Book Review: Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho

on February 17, 2012

Another audio book review!

This one is not going to be quite as glowing as my first post on A Thousand Splendid Suns.  I chose the Witch of Portobello because I knew of Paulo Coelho and his most famous novel, The Alchemist, and had heard wonderful things.  Sometimes I find that an author’s best work, however, isn’t the most famous, and I sought about picking another book instead.  After reading through reviews and synopses of his various books, I settled on the Witch because I was intrigued by the plot line and the unique writing method.

The story is told through the prospectives of multiple people.  The plot progresses through these characters, and revolves around the life of the protagonist, Sherine Khalil, who goes by Athena.  The novel opens with her death, a gruesome murder.

The story then travels back in time through the voice of Athena’s mother, describing how Athena’s parents came to adopt her.  From a young age, Athena is certainly a unique personality.  She is raised in a Christian home in Lebanon, and soon begins seeing spirits and predicting the future.  Through what is later revealed as a calculated act, Athena leads her parents to believe she communes with a higher power which, speaking through Athena, tells her parents violence is coming to Lebanon and they need to flee.  Her parents heed this warning, and move to London.

The story then turns from her youth to her time in college, where she meets and marries her husband, and soon has a child, Viorel.  This relationship quickly deteriorates, as it becomes clear that her only goal was to have a child.  The story then meanders through various jobs and locations, including a stint as a real estate mogul in Saudi Arabia, and later a trip to her place of birth in Transylvania.

The trip was transformative and introduces her to the religious experiences which form the underlying theme of the novel.  She is exposed to the feminine part of the divine, the worship of the Mother and the Goddess.  A focus on love and nature, and spiritual fulfillment.  Through Athena’s development, she uses dance to commune with this God.  Her practice spreads and she eventually begins teaching her methods.

The rest of the book focuses on this progression, and eventually Athena becomes the victim of religious persecution by Christian Zealots who accuse her of devil worship and witch craft.  A particular priest goes after her, and goes to Child Services to get her child taken from her.  Although this effort does not succeed, Athena leaves London.  She is later found murdered, though the murder is believed to be unconnected to her religious beliefs; rather, she is just the victim of senseless violence in a high-crime area.

Although I was not particularly intrigued by the story, one particular chapter was beautifully composed and the message truly transcended the novel.  The chapter is presented as a newspaper article following the religious institution’s assault on Athena’s growing influence.  The article paints Athena as crazy, calls the group a cult, and concludes there must be devil worship going on, while admitting none had ever been seen or witnessed.  The portrayal of maligning any practice which is out of the mainstream, of ridiculing a powerful woman, and not seeing the hypocrisy in maintaining one’s own blind faith in the unprovable realm of religion while concluding any alternative beliefs must be based in some sort of evil and thereby dangerous, was masterfully presented.

Otherwise, the plot dragged on, the introduction of the alternative religious beliefs seemed at once didactic and formulaic, as well as tangential.  The author is obviously trying to open the reader to these alternative beliefs, but it just fell flat for me.  It seemed to forced, and too strange.  With the exception of one character, I did not feel the connection to either the actors or the action.

In summary, I would try Paulo Coelho again, most likely to read the Alchemist as I have heard wonderful things about that novel.  While I concede some of the poignancy of literature can be lost in the audio book form, I felt that the plot was enhanced in this case, as each character’s chapter was read with a different accent and tone, thus allowing the listener to discern between them, and visualize the scene.

Final Note:  When an author emphasizes their own name so heavily on the cover, rather than the title, perhaps that should be a giveaway that even the author is using their own hype to overcome deficiencies in their work.  Just saying…

Has anyone else read The Alchemist of another Coelho work?


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