The Book Worm: Review: Equator

Friday, December 4, 2015

Review: Equator

equator, miguel sousa tavares., book review


It is Lisbon in the year 1905 and our hero, Luis Bernardo Valenca, a 37-year-old bachelor and owner of a small shipping business, is revelling in the luxury of Lisbon's high society. Intellectually curious, he writes about politics in his spare time, believing that Portugal's vast empire is having a civilising effect on the far-off lands it has colonised. But his life is turned upside down when King Dom Carlos asks him to become governor of Portugal's smallest colony, the tiny island of Sao Tome e Principe, stuck out in the Atlantic off the coast of equatorial West Africa, whose economy rests almost entirely on its cocoa plantations. However, the English believe that slavery still exists illegally in Sao Tome and intend to send a diplomatic envoy to check it out. (Of course the English, with their rival cocoa plantations in Africa, have their own reasons for trying to prevent the export of cocoa from Sao Tome). As a gentleman used to a softer urban life, Luis Bernardo is ill-prepared for the challenges of plantation life, and he is shocked by the conditions under which the Angolan workers labour - although he is more than willing to engage romantically with the wife of the English consul, one of several candidates for his attentions. "Equator "is a compelling and constantly surprising novel, casting light on a little-known corner of colonial life. Epic in scope, laced with emotional and moral complexity, "Equator" brings this simmering tropical community to life through the entanglements and betrayals of its cast of unforgettable characters. A best-seller in Portugal, and sold in many languages, "Equator" will also amaze and delights its English readers.

Genre: historical fiction

Publishing date: July 2008 (for the English version available at Amazon; I own an older Portuguese edition)
Offensive content: the general physical and psychological violence life in the African colonies and slave work (even if "unofficial") plus a couple of sex scenes (in the context of an extramarital affair for one of the characters).

There had to come a time when I posted a review of a book by a Portuguese author, and this is it. After all, I live in Portugal, and though most of the books I read nowadays are in English, there are lots of great Portuguese authors (old and new) who deserve to be in the limelight. 

The (long) synopsis above is self explanatory and I have very little to add to it. Although a work of fiction, Equator is historically accurate and brings to life a time, at the beginning of the 20th century when Portugal (and several other European countries) had colonies in Africa. A time when, even though slavery had been officially abolished, the black men and women brought from the African mainland to work in S. Tome's coffee and cocoa plantations were really not free to leave or to do something else. 

Miguel Sousa Tavares is a well known Portuguese journalist and writer. Equator was his first novel and, though he went on to publish several others afterwards, it remains my favorite to this day. Later on, a TV series based on this book was produced and aired on Portuguese television (and in Brazil as well, I think, not sure if anywhere else). I did not see the TV version because I'm often disappointed by adaptations to the screen of books I love and remember well, so I tend to avoid them.

This is not a "pretty" book, on "pretty" subjects, and there's no happy ending.  But it's an eye opening read, that shows how often financial and political motivations of countries (still today) promote social differences instead of eliminating them. It's also a very well written novel and an interesting suggestion if you want to read something different and try out a bit of Portuguese literature.

Happy readings!

the book worm, book blog


  1. Wow! This sounds like a hard but powerful read. I always enjoy trying out books from other countries. Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday this week! It's a pleasure having you!

    1. Thank you Tina! And thank you for hosting the party, I always manage to find new books to add to my (too long already) list of books to read!


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