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Agustina Bessa Luis. Joia de familia: O principio da incerteza.

Lisbon. Guimaraes. 2001. 345 pages. ISBN 972-665-448-3

AGUSTINA BESSA LUIS'S latest novel is not untypical of other works for which she is well known. Joia de familia is a complex portrait of Portuguese society, although the complexity is not necessarily to be found in the details of daily life or family history. Rather, the structural features of the novel--the first of a trilogy--require readers to confront and construct it as a complete text or to consider the psychosocial fabric that makes it impossible to achieve narrative wholeness within the work itself.

The novel is, in truth, a literary trompe l'oeil--or rather a series of them--full of dead ends in which the development of characters is initiated and then trails off, is contradictory, truncated, or in some way unsatisfactory to readers seeking to understand the Clara family. Voices may appear and disappear in the narrative with no distinguishable effect other than the echo (albeit an empty one) of the words, reminding readers of the empty house and hearts of the family whose very joia or jewel--its heart in other words--is not a feeling one. The narrative voice offers a perspectivism that gradually assumes the role of a surrounding society that gossips its way toward understanding the Clara household, yet does not provide convincing evidence of any of its evaluations.

It is almost disconcerting to encounter such a postmodern treatment of a traditional, conservative, and fairly codified society such as this one of northern Portugal, but this is the major achievement of Bessa Luis in the novel, which holds together despite readers' suspicions that it might fall apart. Characters are not clear cut, actions and dialogues cannot be predicted, and seductive narrative threads are merely insinuated, then promptly broken or never used after they are created. There are also references to well-known writers (Pessoa, for one), composers, or historical figures who float within the narrative self-consciously and add to the sense of a collage or disjointed milieu in which boundaries both fuse and conflict, struggling against any true combination in the genre called "novel." A "modern" or contemporary lexicon also runs counter to the world that appears mired in colonial and class-bound traditions. Violence is even hard to define or identify: is it human nature, drugs, or something else that causes it, if indeed it occurs?

Readers know what they have encountered in Joia de familia, but it is not much in terms of actual events, or their causes and effects. Their satisfaction is likely to lie, not in the reading of the novel per se, but in the realization that the story is not in truth the portrait of a specific family, for in fact there is little that can be considered a family. Any sense of readerly accomplishment or response will come from the understanding that the novel is structured by voices and eyes external to the Claras, with all the impressions, misinterpretations, accusations, and ill intentions that spring up around human weakness. There is no family, blood and marital ties are of the weakest sort, and yet society treats the characters as a unit. This insistence on shifting the focus to what makes a family places a burden on the observer/reader and is testimony to the author's creativity.

A passionless, tough, quasitragic void is at the center of Bessa Luis's Joia de familia. It is for committed readers, not for those in search of traditional portraits of class and society. Layered historical moments and the absence of motives for almost everything that takes place in the novel, from beginning to end, will most likely make the second book of the trilogy a much-awaited one. Because the author knows full well what a novel is and what her society is made of, she is able to present us with an antinovel in an antinational setting and, beyond the borders of both, give testimony of her intensely Portuguese vision.

Kathleen March

University of Maine
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Author:March, Kathleen
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2003
Words:654
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