What happened to Athena?
Athena was a lot of things, but nobody’s labels seemed to stick. Everyone who knew her had an opinion…but did any of them really know her? Told in “transcripts” taped by Athena’s “biographer,” The Witch of Portobello is an unusual mystery tale. Not only does the reader discover Athena, Athena discovers herself—through the eyes of others. The Witch of Portobello is adult fiction by Brazillian author Paulo Coelho and published in 2006. Coelho also wrote The Alchemist.
What happened to Athena? This question drove my interest in The Witch of Portobello. Early on in the transcripts, we learn from several of the narrators that Athena was murdered. But how? And by whom? Details, details!
This is the second Paulo Coelho novel I’ve listened to, and I enjoyed it as much as the first (The Alchemist). When I realized this was an epistolary novel told through the alternating “transcripts,” I worried that I might confuse the narrators over audio; but it worked out just fine, although I occasionally had to rewind to figure out who was speaking.
We hear the story of Athena’s journey through the eyes of her parents, her teacher, a besotted journalist and his ex-girlfriend…and they all share really strong opinions about her! Conflicting opinions! It was so entertaining to go from the love-struck journalist to his poisonously jealous girlfriend, etc. Athena evoked strong reactions wherever she went.
The central question of the novel relates, of course, to self-discovery. (If you’ve read anything by Paulo Coelho, you probably know how important this theme in his fiction.) Here’s the pitch:
How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves—even if we are unsure of whom we are?
While Athena discovers her own identity, we hear a lot about the New Age beliefs she comes to devote herself to—seriously, a lot. And they’re weird. As a foster-child adopted from a Transylvanian gypsy woman, and as a young mother, divorced and cast from the Catholic church, Athena struggles to recover from loads of internal wounds. She searches for her identity in a goddess who may or may not speak through her (depending on who is narrating at the time) and trances and dances and other, er, strange places. I admit that sitting in on these meetings is a little awkward, but the rotating narrators make it more fun than preachy. I love when authors use a multitude of narrative perspectives to share different versions of the same story, ultimately leaving the interpretation up to the reader.
And anyway, the central mystery—“What happened to Athena?”—has such a strong pull that I would have listened through ten more of her bewildering New Age sermons just to find out.
And then that surprise ending! Good stuff.
A short, refreshing contemporary mystery by the bestselling author of The Alchemist.
Recommended To :
If you don’t mind wading through the weird stuff, I think you’ll be hooked by this posthumous tale of Athena’s self-discovery. Some have complained that it’s too preachy—most of Coelho’s books could probably find warm spots on those lists of “most controversial books”—although I didn’t mind at all. It’s a relatively short book and, I think, really brilliant.