The book: Os olhos de Ana Marta (The Eyes of Ana Marta), by Alice Vieira
The edition: Portuguese (original) version, as published by Caminho, 156 pages
The story: a house where some rooms are closed forever, a mother who feels she’s not of an age to be a mother anymore (and whose mysterious illness makes it difficult to approach), a father who has forgotten how it was like to be a child. This is Marta’s life, so since early childhood she retreats to the kitchen, where the old housemaid-turned-nanny Leonor takes care of her, feeding her affection and stories. But the mysteries will not remain mysteries forever.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: this is probably the book that went faster from the moment I knew about it (thanks to Alex), to my wishlist, to my TBR (thanks to husband), to read, and now reviewed. And while I don’t usually read children books, I have to admit that this was every bit as good as Alex and Nymeth claimed. (Although, there is an issue that disturbed me, but you’ll have to read the “spoilers” part to find out what it is.)
Mainly there are two things that make this book so good. One is its tenderness. Basically the book is the world as it is seen through the eyes of a child, with imagination pouring over reality through every detail. In this aspect it reminded me a lot of O meu pé de laranja lima. (I am sure that there are other children books that are just as sweet, and more widely known, but they don’t come to mind right now.)
The book’s second asset is its narrative technique. It makes a great job of foreshadowing, of building up tension and mystery, of hinting at something that you don’t discover until the very last pages. I had seen this technique mastered so well in only two novels before, and loved them both to bits: The God of Small Things and Hasta Siempre, Mujercitas (which is another one that has never been translated into English and I can’t understand why). I didn’t expect to find it so well done in a children book.
Bottom line: this book is a little gem.
The part with spoilers: as I mentioned, there was an issue that disturbed me a lot, in the same way that the relationship between the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry disturbed me. Basically, the great secret in this family is that it functions on an extremely morbid basis, i.e. parenting a child to take the place of another. I’m not sure I agree with presenting such a model in a book whose intended readers are children.
Also, I have a question for my Portuguese readers: do you consider “Marta” and “Ana Marta” to be completely different names? I cannot understand how, on the basis of “you cannot even mention the name of Ana Marta” one would go on to call the second daughter Marta. It just does not click for me.
Language & writing: I feel very lucky in that I read Portuguese and was able to read this. You may have heard that Nymeth and Alex are supporting the idea of translating it for a wider audience — I don’t think it would work. I found this book to be extremely Portuguese and I guess it would not work half as well in translation.
Random thought: why are children book covers always so uncomfortable these days?
Read this if: if you are in the mood for something sweet and tender, read this. If you liked O meu pé de laranja lima, you’ll like this all the more. Of course, you need to read Portuguese to access any of the two.