These two books are among the novels I have read most recently and although I did not realise it when I selected them, they both deal in different ways with love as the overall theme. They are in interesting juxtaposition being each such very different styles of writing and yet so very much character driven. The two things that appeal to me most in a novel are the character study many of them offer and the distinct writing style of the author. I am keenly interested in people, how and why they behave the way they do and how they interact with or are perceived by others. As an amateur writer myself I am also fascinated by other writers' styles and am capable of loving a book for the writing style as much or more than the plot.
The Emperor of Paris, by C S Richardson, is one of those books whose poetic prose captured me immediately. It is a gently told story, deceptively simple and spare, every word and every sentence something carefully chosen as in the way of a poem. The reader interprets, reads between the lines and really pays attention while reading. The overall theme is love though it is not specifically a love story. Love is shown, whether romantic, paternal or filial, between different characters, but there is also love of a different sort, that of passion for books and for art. Art is not just painting; it is also baking, it is art restoration and it is fashion.
In a slim volume, this novel brings us a large cast of characters and spans decades. It is largely the story of Octavio Notre-Dame and Isabeau Normande. Octavio comes from a family of bakers and his father, the thinnest baker in all of Paris, has a passion for story telling but cannot read. It turns out Octavio has this same reading challenge, which runs in his family but which is never named because in this time it did not have a name. The reader will recognise it as dyslexia Octavio leaves school at a very young age due to his inability to read. He spends his days with his father, learning about the world through his father's imaginative story telling and learning how to bake delicious breads and pastries. Eventually his path will cross with that of Isabeau, a beautiful but scarred young woman with a passion for reading.
This book is one to be enjoyed slowly. Think of it as a fine pastry and enjoy every bite, not rushing to consume it. It is a book that will particularly appeal to romantics, dreamers, lovers of stories and of books. The main criticisms I have read are about the structure, the way the story moves back and forth between the past and the present. Such a structure forces the reader to slow down and is not a lack of skill but a deliberate strategy, though not everyone will like this. I and others who have reviewed the book found that it was well worth slowing down to enjoy it, and that it only takes a moment to realise it is a book to be savoured.
The Witch of Portobello Road is also a novel about love. Written by Portuguese author Paulo Coelho and translated into English by Margeret Jull Costa, it is quite opposite to the previous book, being a page turner and of a faster paced narrative. The author's skill is in story telling and in creating the voice of his characters. The love involved in this story is love of self, love of humanity and the accompanying passion and sacrifices that love involves. This is the story of Sherine Kahlil, who calls herself Athena, a rather mysterious and strange young woman with mystical powers and charisma. It is told by various people who either knew her well or met her only briefly, one of which falls madly in love with her, some who love her as family and even one who vehemently dislikes her.
Who is Athena? Is she what this person says or what that person says, all of those things or none of those things? Athena has either a gift or a mental illness, a cure or a curse for humanity. Coelho weaves the pagan story of the Goddess, The Great Mother, into this story and we learn something of this spiritual practice as Athena discovers the Goddess within by learning to focus on the empty spaces, the silences that she once desperately tried to fill. She becomes fully herself and becomes larger than herself. Is she a witch, a priestess, a charlatan or just crazy?
From the beginning we learn that she is dead, murdered, and the story is an attempt to reconstruct her life with the majority of it being about the few years in which she hastens along a spiritual path that leads her to the goddess. As the story develops there is a subtle commentary on modern culture, on morality and humanity. We see the way humans behave when faced with a threat to their way of viewing the world, when faced with a woman they see as either a saviour or a sinner. We see the strength of parental love, the loyalty of filial love and the thrill of romantic love. We know that we are following the story to the point of her death and we are drawn in so as to find out exactly why and how this happened. Some of the narrators tell us it was inevitable and possibly even for the best. We want to know why that is.