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May 2019

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Skylight by José Saramago

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Fans of books that look at many different characters(as opposed to just one or two protagonists).

In a nutshell:
In late-1940s Lisbon, six apartments contain a variety of tenants searching for something more in their lives — or searching for ways to keep their lives the same.

Worth quoting:
“She knew men too well to love any of them.”
“I have never lied so much in my life and I hadn’t realised how many people are prepared to believe lies.”
“His brain attached itself to all kinds of things, went over and over the same problems, plunged into them, drowned in them, so that, in the end, his own thoughts became the problem.”

Why I chose it:
My favorite book is Blindness, which José Saramago published in 1995. A friend bought it for me (having never read it himself) and it turned into the book I gave friends if I stayed with them. Maybe an odd choice, but whatever. I think it’s a fantastic book. I read the sequel and wasn’t as into it, but still, Saramago can write. Last year we went to Lisbon for our anniversary and visited Casa dos Bicos, which is home to the Saramago foundation. I saw his Nobel Prize for literature. It was amazing. They also had a bookshop, and this book stood out to me because it was one of his first books but was only published after his death.

Review:
CN: Brief discussion of marital assault

Early in his career, Saramago sent the manuscript for Skylight to a publisher. Early, as in, he sent it in 1953. The publisher didn’t get back to him. In 1989, someone at the publishing house found it and asked if they could publish it. Saramago said no. In fact, he said it couldn’t be published until after his death.

Although this book is set in the 1940s, it could be set in the 2010s. Obviously there are no mobile phones, and people listen to the radio or play games in the evening, but nothing about the stories feels dated or old fashioned, which is, to me, a pretty amazing sign of Saramago’s ability to write people, regardless of time or space.

That’s not to say that time and space don’t play into this. Some of the people in this book are a bit of a throwback (in my mind at least), such as the man who has a wife and daughter and prides himself on being the head of the household in a way that I consider pathetic. There is the mother, her sister, and two daughters all living together because the family has come on hard times.

The neighbors are connected in some ways, and disconnected in others. One couple takes in a lodger who stays up late discussing life with the husband. Another is a woman living alone in an apartment kept by the man who employs her as a mistress; he also employs another tenant as an office worker, which creates some drama. There is the couple whose daughter died and who cannot stand each other the the point that he sexually assaults her (in fairly brief scene that challenges the reader). There is the woman who is attracted to other women but doesn’t know what to do with those feelings.

And the women don’t exist just to further along the plots of the men. We get to hear from them, get their points of view, experience their lives. As part of the time, many of those lives are intertwined with or dependent on men, but they clearly have their own goals and dreams and perspectives. The writing of them isn’t perfect, but it’s mostly well done.

I was a bit worried to pick this one up because I love Blindness so much. What if it was a fluke? What if Saramago’s writing only spoke to me the one time? Especially as I didn’t entirely enjoy the follow-up? But not to worry – this was nearly as good as Blindness for me. Radically different in plot, but still an interesting exploration of human life.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it

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