Book: The Eyes of Ana Marta


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.

4 comments on “Book: The Eyes of Ana Marta

  1. I think I can explain the name thing: sometimes we think of a first name and middle name as forming a single name – they’re never really said separately and people grow to think of it as a unit. So in that sense, “Ana Marta” and “Marta” would indeed be perceived as different names by Portuguese people, even if one is part of the other.

    I’m really glad you loved this, and I can see what you mean about the similarities to O Meu Pé de Laranja Lima. How I wish these two books were available in English (the latter was translated, but it’s now out of print and uses copies change hands for hundreds of dollars. A sign of how beloved the book is, but also sad.)

  2. Thank you for chiming in on the name thing. I had never realized how much culture could influence the way we perceived names, until I came to Portugal. And this gives the whole idea a new turn. Thanks!
    Hundred of dollars, really? Wow! For much that I loved both these books, I’d invest those money in a good Portuguese course and then buy the original for a few Euros… but that’s me, of course 😉

  3. Interesting point about how appropriate the theme is for children. I never really considered it, but doing it now, I think that for such a though subject, Alice Vieira tackles it perfectly. Not too dramatic, but also without paternalism. I think I first read it when i was 12 and it was the perfect time.
    There is another one of her books – Flor the Mel – which is also about a sensitive issue, also written in a very sensible way. My other favorites by her: Ursula a Maior and the Rosa, Minha Irma Rosa trilogy,

  4. Well, you see, I don’t think that the theme in itself — coping with a disrupted family and coping with death and mourning — is not appropriate for children, and I guess you are right in saying that Vieira works it well. And maybe I am underestimating teens… See, the thing is, *I* was disturbed by the way this family functioned. It grieves me when such things happen, even when it’s “only” to characters. And in the end I felt like this model of coping was explained but not sanctioned enough. Yes, I guess I may be underestimating children.
    Thank you for mentioning these other titles, I’ll check them out!

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