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Five great books set in Portugal

16th April 2018

Portugal is the latest country for us to visit in our ‘Great books set in…’ series. Five great books set in Portugal.

It’s the part of the Iberian peninsula that often gets overlooked, but Portugal has a rich history and culture that readers and visitors would do well to explore. One of the oldest European nations, its territory was much fought over through the ages but is now a settled, enlightened and prosperous country.

It may not have the depth of literary output associated with other European countries, but here are a few perfect books to take with you on holiday to Portugal – or to pick up at home for some vicarious travelling – to enjoy a little literary wanderlust.

Five great books set in Portugal1. 300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson

Combining the atmosphere of Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins with the intriguing historical backstory of Christina Baker Kline’s The Orphan Train, Deborah Lawrenson’s mesmerizing novel transports readers to a sunny Portuguese town with a shadowy past where two women, decades apart, are drawn into a dark game of truth and lies that still haunts the shifting sea marshes.

Traveling to Faro, Portugal, journalist Joanna Millard hopes to escape an unsatisfying relationship and a stalled career. Faro is an enchanting town, and the seaside views are enhanced by the company of Nathan Emberlin, a charismatic younger man. But behind the crumbling facades of Moorish buildings, Joanna soon realizes, Faro has a seedy underbelly, its economy compromised by corruption and wartime spoils. And Nathan has an ulterior motive for seeking her company: he is determined to discover the truth involving a child’s kidnapping that may have taken place on this dramatic coastline over two decades ago.

Joanna’s subsequent search leads her to Ian Rylands, an English expat who cryptically insists she will find answers in The Alliance, a novel written by American Esta Hartford. The book recounts an American couple’s experience in Portugal during World War II, and their entanglements both personal and professional with their German enemies. Only Rylands insists the book isn’t fiction, and as Joanna reads deeper into The Alliance, she begins to suspect that Esta Hartford’s story and Nathan Emberlin’s may indeed converge in Faro where the past not only casts a long shadow but still exerts a very present danger.

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2. A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson

Europe, 1941: Lisbon is one of the world’s tensest cities, and as the Nazis and Allies jostle for power, Iberia becomes a fulcrum for the menace that is about to engulf Europe. Klaus Felsen, torn from his Berlin factory to become a reluctant member of the SS, finds himself drawn into a savage battle for a vital element in Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. There he meets a man who will set in motion a sinister conspiracy that will last to the end of the century.

Lisbon, 1998: Inspector Zé Coelho is struggling against the closed ranks of his colleagues in the investigation of the brutal murder of a young girl. Her disturbing sexual past is the focus for his colleagues’ attention, but as Coelho begins to unearth some remarkable secrets behind her death, he encounters a plot that stretches beyond the 1974 Portuguese revolution – back to the atrocities of the fascist regime. Soon he is facing a terrifying opponent in his battle to uncover the horrors of the past.

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3. Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Night Train to Lisbon follows Raimund Gregorius, a 57-year-old Classics scholar, on a journey that takes him across Europe.

Abandoning his job and his life and travelling with a dusty old book as his talisman, he heads for Lisbon in search of clues to the life of the book’s Portuguese author, Amadeu de Prado. As he gets swept up in his quest, he finds that the journey is also one of self-discovery, as he re-encounters all the decisions he has made – and not made – in his life, and faces the roads not travelled.

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Five great books set in Portugal4. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomás discovers an old journal. It hints at the location of an extraordinary artefact that – if it exists – would redefine history. Travelling in one of Europe’s earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this treasure. Some thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist finds himself at the centre of a murder mystery.

Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he comes to his ancestral village with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee.

Three stories. Three broken hearts. One exploration: what is a life without stories?

The High Mountains of Portugal takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century – and through the human soul.

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5. Tango in Madeira by Jim Williams

A disillusioned soldier looks for love. An exiled Emperor fears assassination. Agatha Christie takes a holiday. And George Bernard Shaw learns to tango.

In the aftermath of World War I, Michael Pinfold – a disillusioned ex-soldier – tries to rescue his failing family wine business on the island of Madeira. In a villa in the hills the exiled Austrian Emperor lives in fear of assassination by Hungarian killers, while in Reid’s Hotel, a well-known lady crime novelist is stranded on her way to South Africa and George Bernard Shaw whiles away his days corresponding with his friends, writing a one act play and learning to tango with the hotel manager’s spouse.

A stranger, Robinson, is found murdered and Michael finds himself manipulated into investigating the crime by his sinister best friend, Johnny Cardozo, the local police chief, with whose wife he is pursuing an arid love affair: manipulated, too, by Father Flaherty, a priest with dubious political interests, and by his own eccentric parent, who claims to have been part of a comedy duo that once entertained the Kaiser with Jewish jokes.

Will Michael find love? Will the Emperor escape his would-be killers? Will any of the characters learn the true meaning of the tango?

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Andrew for the TripFiction Team

Which titles would you add to the list? Remember there are more than 20 to choose from in the Portugal listings on TripFiction…! Each will transport you to some excellent fiction, travelogues or memoirs set in this fascinating country. Or you may have your own favourites you would like to add. Please leave your thoughts in the Comments box below.

Other posts in our ‘Ten great books set in…’ series include:

Ten great books set in Paris

Ten great books set in New York

Ten great books set in London

Ten great book set in Rome

Ten great book set in Berlin

Ten great books set in Russia

And the first three in our ‘Five great books set in’… series:

Five great books set in Naples

Five great books set in Dublin

Five great books set in Dubai

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