The Witch of Portobello – Paulo Coelho


I have been wanting to read a Paulo Coelho novel for some time. For one reason or the other I keep missing the opportunity to do so. All of his books look to be very interesting and I am absolutely open to hearing from anyone who has a favorite that I should give a try to. Perhaps that is why I am left with somewhat a mix sensation when it comes to The Witch Of Portobello. The prose and format of the novel are wonderful and strangely enough, it is the characters that I found so dislikable.

“…I did. A new witch hunt is starting to gain ground. This time the weapon isn’t the red-hot iron, but irony and repression…”

   The Witch of Portobello was born a Romanian orphan of dubious descent. She was adopted by a well to do Beirut couple to be the daughter nature had denied them. They named her Sherine Khalil but the world would come to know her as Athena. As a child, Athena soon finds that she can see and feel the world around her differently than other children. She was prone to vague premonitions that seemed to come true. Her parents keep this secret and as she grows up they send her to an elite school, hoping the education will shape her. She becomes very spiritual and comes to believe that God wants her to have a child and become a mother, to replace the mother that had abandoned her. She convinces her boyfriend to marry against his and her families wishes. But that soon dissolves and at a young age she finds herself a divorced mother. What she was not prepared for was how this decision would impact her relationship with her church.

“…I like to imagine that, when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms, asking him to explain why she was being excluded just because of a piece of paper she’d signed, something of no importance on the spiritual plane, and which was of interest only to registry offices and the tax man.
   And looking at Athena, Jesus might have replied: “My child, I’ve been excluded too. It’s a very long time since they’ve allowed me in there…”

   It is this exclusion that leads Athena on a quest. This exclusion from the church she holds so dear. A quest to fulfill her life and spirit. She finds that she reaches another level of consciousness when she dances. She begins to teach this dance to others but they do not feel all she feels. Yet she is still not satisfied. She searches for other spiritual people and learns from them. One thing she learns is that it is the blank spaces in her life that haunt her and the largest of these is the mother who abandoned her. What she finds is that she comes from a line of mystical women. Gypsies who have lived in Romania for centuries.

“…On the other hand, they think that by giving us some tricksy name, like “travelers” or “Roma,” they can put right the many wrongs they’ve done us in the past.
   Why can’t they just call us gypsies and put an end to all the stories that make us look as if we were cursed in the eyes of the world…”

   Here, by her mother’s side, Athena is taught to tap into the spiritual awakening within her and it is this new spirituality that she brings home. A spirituality that is infectious and threatening to the religions that are entrenched in her town. Of her followers she asks a great deal and nothing at the same time. They find her vagueness wise.

“…Simply being in her presence seemed to justify my very existence. Was that what she wanted to hear? Fine, I’d tell her over supper. I’d be capable of doing almost anything, even leaving the woman I was living with, but I drew the line, of course, at giving away my books…”

   Athena and the established powers come to a head in violence and the threat of losing her child from neglect. In finale, Athena is no more.

   The Witch of Portobello is a powerful novel of the growth and individuality of one person’s spiritual ascension. For Athena, after her church cast her out, she found that in a Mother Earth religion of her own making. For many this may be a novel of a woman’s right to choose her own life and the direction it takes. Shedding away the conventional and the bonds that society would have her labeled to be. I can see that.
   But for me I found the character of Athena, not to be strong and independent but instead, selfish and petulant. Several times through the course of the book, when challenges arose and things did not go easily her way; Athena reacted in a violent and angry manner. Often cursing those who would teach her and guide her along the way. Too often, she was less the spiritual Witch of Portobello and instead the spoiled little rich orphan child she had been raised to be. Those who told the tale along side of her made constant excuses for her behavior and blamed the world around her.
   There was the consistent abandonment of her child as she went off on her quest, or worse dragging him along as she searched only for her own needs.

   The Witch of Portobello is incredibly well written and I enjoyed the chapters being broken up and narrated by different characters in the book. The tone and tenor of the story being changed from chapter to chapter dependent upon the point of the view of the character telling it.
   I just found them so dislikable in their selfishness and blindness. There is so little growth in them. The opportunities for each of them to have found a special place for themselves on a spiritual plane was spoiled by their inability to see beyond themselves.
   I would still like to read Paulo Coelho. I found his writing and prose to be very enjoyable. Hopefully there is a character of his that will be to my liking.


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