First sentence: At first he thought it was a scarecrow.
Refiections: This novel is in effect a series of character sketches, set in Portugal's Alentejo region, a southern agricultural area just north of the Algarve, the popular tourist destination. The book begins in the middle of Mediterranean summer, and Ali vividly evokes the languor of oppressively hot days. The village of Mamarrosa is a sleepy hamlet with the usual local cafe, butcher, shop, church, and village square. An enterprising villager has just opened an Internet cafe, but the information superhighway comes slowly in these parts: "It was an internet cafe without the Internet, and nobody expected any better." (p. 123). The hopes of many villagers are pinned on a prodigal son, who is scheduled to return to the area any day. It is rumored he will be opening a large hotel, raising hopes of employment and prosperity.
Mamarrosa is populated by locals, British expats, and a few tourists, and we meet them all in turn. There's a poor and dysfunctional English family, whose teenage daughter is well known around town: "The Potts girl walked into the cafe preceded by her reputation so that everyone was obliged to stare." (p. 14). A local girl, Teresa, has just been presented with an opportunity to leave the region for London, and wrestles with her decision and the potential impact on her family and boyfriend. Vasco, a widower, married an American and lived in the United States until her death. He now runs the local cafe & bar, and resists the competitive threat of the Internet cafe. Eileen, a mid-50s British tourist, is on holiday with her husband. Their relationship is strained; she has chosen the holiday destination this year and it's not quite to his liking. But for her, it's just right: "I like it better than all those delightful Tuscan towns we 'did' the year before last. All that history and architecture -- it gives you a headache, just shuffling past on sore sightseeing feet, trying to blot out the English voices everywhere." (p. 81).
While there are tiny threads linking chapters together, it's the characters, not the plot, that are the beauty of this book. Ali has written an enjoyable, if not particularly complex or thought-provoking, book.