Alentejo Blue, by Monica Ali.
She wore her black slingbacks and a white cotton dress with blue flowers that matched the paint that framed the door. Alentejo blue. here she was, in a picture, in a moment, setting out for the rest of her life. -From Alentejo Blue, page 131-
Monica Ali's novella -- Alentejo Blue -- is a collection of moments lived by its vast array of characters. The Alentejo region of Portugal -- located in south-central Portugal and known for its tiny, medieval villages -- is the perfect setting for Ali's book, which seems to be a collection of interconnected, short stories. Ali is adept at exploring her characters' inner lives. The reader is gradually introduced to the inhabitants of the fictional town of Mamarrosa: Joao, an old timer who has seen the days of Communism and remembers the revolution of the peasants; Vasco, the baker whose obesity and compulsion with eating hides his painful losses; Teresa, a young woman who longs to break away from the village of her birth; Sophie and Huw, an engaged couple whose holiday to Portugal uncovers the deeper issues of their relationship; Elaine, a middle-aged English woman seeking meaning in her tired marriage; Stanton, the alcoholic writer living a shallow existence; and the Potts family, living a dysfunctional existence far from their home in England. As the novella unwinds, the reader glimpses the connections between characters and the main themes evolve.
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.
So we stay as we are and watch the shadows lengthen and smell the evening loaves being baked and feel the sun slipping low, blushing over our necks like the first taste of wine. -From Alentejo Blue, page 94-
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.
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