After his premium novel The Zahir, Paulo Coelho, one of the most beloved writers of our time, returns with another parable, another endeavor into the realm of love, spirituality, and imagination.
Like all of Coelho’s works, The Witch of Portobello, his latest book, published in April 2007, is another successful attempt by the renowned Brazilian author to change your perception of life.
The book is about the eternal spiritual quest for Truth, the essence of life and the pursuit of a persisting dream tormenting one’s psychological being.
It tells the tale of the transformation of a normal modern woman, Athena, originally named Sherine Khalil, through a series of recorded interviews with people who know, encountered, or lived with her, including her miserable parents.
From an impoverished orphanage in Romania, to a childhood in Beirut, then a final settlement in London interrupted by occasional business trips to Dubai, Athena, a troubled young woman, embarks on a journey of exploring what she believed were her extraordinary talents.
Learning that her parents are not her birth parents, Athena sets off in the search of her roots! The minute her journey starts off, a dramatic turn of events occurs. Athena explores different horizons of life as she discovers some hidden powers and potentials existing inside her. She meets with people who encourage her to give rein to her imagination, to seek the unknown, provoke her true capabilities and make the best out of them.
Among those she meets with is a newspaper reporter, a priest, a theatre-actress, and a teacher of calligraphy, who left a stark impact on her that changed the course of her life.
After she herself was seeking guidance- a spiritual guidance that would help her answer some questions that have long been tormenting her about religion and the true aim of life, she herself became sought out by people who need her help in solving life’s mysteries.
Throughout her life, Athena has always felt torn between two competing worlds, the world of her inner self, and that of religion and what she’s been taught at school, mistakenly believing that, in her own words, she was “a vessel in which the Divine Energy can make itself manifest”.
Layer by layer Coelho unveils the inner conflict of that restless, suffering creature.
In London’s Portobello Road, the story of Athena, by then sought out by a massive number of followers, reaches its climax, and at the same time comes to an end. Athena, who became an icon of spirituality- even dubbed ‘the Witch of Portobello’, disappears amidst mysterious circumstances, and later on found dead. She was brutally murdered!
Those who read Coelho’s masterpiece The Alchemist will find that Athena is very much like Santiago, both characters embark on a wild journey of soul searching and meaning for their life.
Like Santiago, Athena listens to the signs she encounters in her journey of self-discovery. She follows the signs unveiled before her, or rather the signs she believes she can see.
In The Witch of Portobello, Coelho touches on the sensitive subject of religion, as he usually does in most of his works.
My only criticism of the novel actually has to do with one of its dominating themes that had always been associated with the name of Coelho; it’s the theme of The Goddess, or the Feminine Face of God; a religious ideology or cult that has been, since so long, rejected by the three major religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for it reduces God, the only creator of the Universe, into a mere character having two sides, or two faces.
Notwithstanding the book’s great storytelling, some of its parts should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The most exciting aspect of The Witch of Portobello, however, is that it brings you in direct contact with that weak, unstable part of you that has long been trying to tell you something but you never had the courage to listen to it. It’s that part inside each one of us that confronts us with our real potentials; asking us to do extraordinary things- to go beyond our limits, limits that have been set by the society. However, this is not a call to violate social norms or ethical and religious traditions, but an alarm that, unless we acquire the courage to seek different and new directions, our highest dreams and goals will remain far fetched.
Everyone’s searching for the true essence of life, but very few seem capable of pursuing the right path to reach that end. You might encounter people who express utter willingness to help you realise your dreams and ultimate goals in life, but finding the right path will always remain your job.
If you’re interested in spiritual journeys and self-exploration, you shall greatly enjoy this book.
– First published in The Community Times Magazine