Written by José Saramago Margaret Jull Cost (trans.)
Review by Jeff Westerhoff

In 1940s Lisbon, Portugal, tenants of a small apartment building eke out a living amid abusive relationships, financially struggling families and sexual liaisons. Silvestre, a cobbler, lives with his wife and rents out a room to a young lodger. They become friends and share their philosophies on the meaning of life. Candida and her sister, Amelia, live with Candida’s two young daughters, Isura and Adriana. Caetano Cunha, an abusive man who cheats on his wife, Justina, struggle on without their daughter, who died several years earlier. Dona Rosalia and her husband, Anselmo, try to position their young, beautiful daughter, Maria Claudia, into a more highly paid job. Dona Carmen, at 33, is at odds with her husband, Emilio, who feels like he is a prisoner in his own home. Finally Lida, 32, is a kept mistress for the last three years to Paulino Morais, a man of means who owns his own business.

Saramago died in 2010, and he refused to allow this novel to be published during his lifetime. He had won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his body of work, but he felt slighted when this manuscript was refused publication in 1953. His book has now been made available to the reading public. This bird’s-eye, or skylight, view of life in a Lisbon tenement is well written with a number of well-formed and credible characters introduced early on in the novel. All scenes take place in the apartment building, similarly to plays written by Neil Simon, showing the Jewish middle-class experience.

Prepare to be immersed in the lives of these people as they interact with each other. The author uses brilliant descriptions to underscore their sad and unhappy existence. I highly recommend this novel.