Reviewed by Alison Walters
The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho is a mystical novel surrounding the life of Athena/Sherine/”The Witch” born in Transylvania to a Romani mother, who is orphaned and later adopted by a wealthy Lebanese couple. Her story is told by the people who knew her including her adoptive mother, her ex-husband, a journalist researching vampirism, a priest, her landlord, a teacher of calligraphy and an actress. They each provide a different view of her, describing not only what they saw and experienced but adding their own impressions, interpreting her through their own beliefs and fears. This is what keeps the story moving forward and engages the reader.
The book starts with the death of Athena. From the beginning, she is a devout member of the Catholic Church. As a child, she sees visions of angels and saints. She is dismissed from the Catholic Church in humiliation and vows never to set forth in a church again. However, she is always looking for ways to fit in on a spiritual level. She finds herself connecting to her spiritual side through music and dance. She shares this new-found spirituality, embraces it and moves forward and is successful with her life. She travels extensively sharing her experiences. Yet one cannot help, but think she is also on a quest to find even deeper spirituality as she befriends a Bedouin and goes in search and finds her birth mother. Even after these encounters she is searching for further fulfilment
She learns the best way of knowing the meaning of life is by learning from one’s student and thus takes on a student. A teacher can only make us aware of our capabilities but finding the right path is up to the individual.
Although she has a good lifestyle her mind is never fully at ease. So she sets out to find answers to the classical question of “Who am I?”. In her quest, she opens her heart to intoxicating powers and becomes a controversial spiritual leader in London. She channels her inner goddess, Hagia Sophia at weekly meetings. Subsequently, she becomes the target of death threats and religious bigotry – a literal witch hunt if you will. As in all areas of life – people fear what they do not understand. She is ultimately faced with the choice of continuing to spread the word or saving the life of her son.
This book is full of religious, spritual and mystical allusions. One concept which stood out is where Athena tries to explain to her mother:
I learned calligraphy while I was in Dubai. I dance whenever I can, but music only exhausts because the pauses exist, and sentences only exist because the blank spaces exist. When I’m doing something, I feel complete, but no one can keep active twenty- four hours a day. As soon as I stop, I feel there’s something lacking. You’ve often said to me that I’m a naturally restless person, but I didn’t choose to be that way. I’d like to sit here quitely, watching television, but I can’t. My brain won’t stop. Sometimes I think I’m going mad. I need always to be dancing, writing, selling land, taking care of Viorel, or reading whatever I find to read. Do you think that’s normal?”
I empathise with this sentiment as I see a human striving to try and completely understand themselves and wanting more in the process. This concept forms an integral part of and epitomises the human spirit. Athena is an extreme example, but you can identify with her as she drives herself forward and seeks to find out who she is.
This is another compelling work by Coelho. As always, Coelho’s stories are about spirituality and the search for inner truth/self and will appeal to those who are interested in the subject matter.