24 Must-Read Books Set in Portugal

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Last updated on June 4, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 12 minutes

Portugal has been the setting for numerous captivating novels that bring its essence to life. These books, especially those written by Portuguese authors, offer an immersive experience into the country’s soul, perfect for those wishing to learn more about its unique culture. And, if you’re unable to visit Portugal in person, these books promise to transport you there, whether that’s to the streets of Lisbon, the beaches of the Algarve, or post World War I Madeira.

The Year of The Death of Ricardo Reis by José Saramago

José Saramago, the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author, brings us “The Year of The Death of Ricardo Reis”. Set in prewar fascist Lisbon, it interweaves the romantic entanglements of its protagonist, a poet-physician returned from Brazil, with deep dialogues exploring human nature through the lens of Portuguese history and culture.

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

In this captivating Lisbon-set mystery, Swiss classics teacher Raimund Gregorious embarks on an unexpected journey. A chance encounter with a Portuguese woman inspires him to leave his life behind. Boarding the night train to Lisbon, he carries a book by Portuguese author Amadeu de Prado. Gregorious becomes deeply immersed in Prado’s words, setting off a quest across Lisbon to unravel the author’s enigmatic life. This philosophical adventure evolves into a profound journey of self-discovery.

The Maias by Eça de Queiros

Eça de Queiros, a celebrated Portuguese writer, masterfully portrays 19th-century life in “The Maias”. The novel, set in Lisbon, follows the waning fortunes of the wealthy Maia family across three generations. Their story, richly intertwined with the political and social fabric of the time, offers a vivid glimpse into Portugal’s history.

300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson

Deborah Lawrenson’s novel, “300 Days of Sun,” takes readers to a charming yet mysterious Portuguese town. It’s a tale where two women’s lives, separated by decades, intertwine amidst secrets and lies in the coastal marshes. Joanna Millard, a journalist, arrives in Faro seeking a new start, only to be drawn into a decades-old kidnapping mystery by Nathan Emberlin, a man with hidden motives. As Joanna delves deeper, she uncovers a connection to “The Alliance,” a novel about an American couple’s WWII experiences in Portugal, which may hold the key to the present dangers shadowing Faro’s sunny streets.

A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson’s “A Small Death in Lisbon” weaves a complex tale spanning from WWII to the late 90s. In 1941, Lisbon becomes a pivotal battleground for Nazis and Allies. Klaus Felsen, forced from Berlin to join the SS, embarks on a perilous mission crucial to Hitler’s war plans. Fast forward to 1998, Inspector Zé Coelho faces a wall of silence investigating a young girl’s murder in Lisbon. His probe reveals sinister secrets linking back to fascist atrocities and a chilling conspiracy reaching far beyond the 1974 Portuguese revolution.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Yann Martel’s “The High Mountains of Portugal” is a journey through both Portugal and the human spirit. In 1904 Lisbon, Tomás embarks on a quest in one of Europe’s earliest automobiles, seeking a historic artefact. Decades later, a Portuguese pathologist becomes entangled in a bizarre murder mystery. Half a century later, a grieving Canadian senator arrives in northern Portugal with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee. This novel interweaves three poignant narratives, exploring the essence of storytelling and life’s profound journeys.

Tango in Madeira by Jim Williams

“Tango in Madeira” by Jim Williams is a captivating novel set in the aftermath of World War I. Michael Pinfold, a disenchanted ex-soldier, strives to salvage his family’s wine business in Madeira. Amidst his struggles, the island buzzes with intriguing figures: an exiled Austrian Emperor fearing assassination, a famous crime novelist, and George Bernard Shaw learning to tango. When a murder occurs, Michael is thrust into a web of intrigue, manipulated by friends and foes alike. This story is a blend of romance, political intrigue, and the quest for the true essence of tango.

Pereira Maintains by António Tabucchi

António Tabucchi’s “Pereira Maintains”, set in 1930s Portugal, is a poignant narrative warning against political apathy. The story revolves around Dr. Pereira, a widowed journalist in prewar Lisbon. His life is transformed when he meets Monteiro Rossi, a young writer. The novel, known for its unique language and experimental style, follows Pereira’s reluctant journey towards heroism and selfless political action.

The Piano Cemetery by José Luís Peixoto

Set in Lisbon’s Benefica district, “The Piano Cemetery” is a moving family saga by José Luís Peixoto. It follows two generations of carpenters with a unique passion for repairing pianos. The narrative, infused with love, betrayal, and a blend of joy and sorrow, intertwines the tragic real-life story of marathon-runner Francisco Lázaro.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler

Richard Zimler’s “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon” is a riveting historical novel set against the backdrop of anti-Jewish riots in 16th-century Lisbon. The protagonist, Berekiah Zarco, inherits his uncle Abraham’s skills in manuscript illustration and Kabbalah. Following his uncle’s murder during the riots, Berekiah’s search for the killer leads him to a profound and larger mystery.

Mr. Millennium by Morgan Nyberg

Canadian author Morgan Nyberg’s “Mr. Millennium” is a darkly comic tale set in a fictional Portuguese city. It follows Gabor Esterhazy, a bright but troubled young man, as he becomes entangled with a dubious secret society. Claiming Gabor’s descent from Jesus Christ through Hungarian aristocracy, his journey spirals into a chaotic mix of desire, deceit, and danger.

Two Nights in Lisbon by Chris Pavone

Ariel Pryce wakes in Lisbon to find her husband missing. Her search begins at the hotel security, moves to the police, and then to the US embassy. Each step is met with perplexing questions: Why is John in Lisbon? What was the purpose of bringing her on this trip? Could someone be targeting him? And most troublingly, how much does Ariel truly know about the man she married?

Celebrated as an instant New York Times bestseller in May 2022, this novel is a journey into the unknown corridors of a spouse’s past.

The Guilt Trip by Sandie Jones

Sandie Jones’s thrilling new novel “The Guilt Trip” takes readers on a gripping journey, echoing the suspense of “The Other Woman”. It’s a story of six friends: Rachel and Noah, university friends who once harbored feelings for each other, now happily married to Jack and Paige. The group, along with Jack’s brother Will and his impulsive, captivating fiancée Ali, head to Portugal for a destination wedding.

A single, devastating misunderstanding shifts everything. As the wedding weekend progresses, hidden secrets emerge, threatening to unravel friendships and marriages. In this tense atmosphere, rash judgments could mean the difference between life and death. “The Guilt Trip” promises to keep readers enthralled until its shocking conclusion.

The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

Two expatriate couples, awaiting their passage back to America, find themselves entwined during their stay at the two Hotel Francforts. As they spend time together, new friendships blossom amidst a web of sexual tension and intrigue. Set against the backdrop of a Europe ravaged by war, in a Lisbon teeming with spies and refugees, appearances are deceptive. But then again, perhaps they’re not. This story unravels with multiple twists, offering more than just one narrative thread to follow.

Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali

“Alentejo Blue,” set in a quaint Portuguese village, captures the essence of change and adaptation. It’s a tale woven around the lives of Mamarrosa’s inhabitants, where generations have been laid to rest, and those who continue to live face the challenges of earning their livelihood in an evolving landscape. As the village sees an influx of tourists and expatriates, the local residents observe the shifting tides of their home.

Monica Ali brings to life characters filled with depth and relatability. Her portrayal of their aspirations, yearnings, and setbacks is both unique and emotionally resonant, offering a poignant insight into the human condition.

City of Spies by Mara Timon

After her identity is compromised in Paris, SOE agent Elisabeth de Mornay is forced to escape, with the Gestapo hot on her heels. She finds refuge in the neutral territory of Lisbon, a melting pot where high society, diplomats, businessmen, and the clandestine converge. In this precarious haven, Elisabeth is assigned a new role and identity.

Assuming the guise of Solange Verin, a wealthy French widow, Elisabeth’s mission is to penetrate a German spy network that’s sabotaging Allied naval efforts. Her task is critical: to prevent further losses of British servicemen.

As Elisabeth delves deeper into her undercover role, the dangers escalate. Constantly under the watchful eye of a German officer, she must rely on her wits and courage to unearth the truth and fulfill her perilous mission.

The Implacable Order of Things by Jose Luis Peixoto

Set in a poverty-stricken village in Portugal’s Alentejo region, José Luis Peixoto crafts a captivating narrative about the lives of individuals shaped by hardship and scarcity. In this world, people are not only battling hunger and relentless labor but also grapple with deep-seated emotions like envy and violence, all under the shadow of inescapable destiny.

The story follows José, a quiet shepherd, whose world begins to unravel as he is taunted by ‘the Devil’ with suspicions of betrayal. In contrast, the ancient and wise Gabriel, who has lived for 120 years, offers a perspective shaped by time. Amidst these tales, there’s a unique love story of Siamese twins, connected at their fingertips. Their inseparable bond faces an unprecedented challenge when one twin falls for a local cook. And amidst these human stories, the enigmatic Devil himself plays a pivotal role.

Emily’s Algarve Escape

Emily’s world turns upside down when her husband is suddenly jobless, and their debts spiral out of control. Opting for tax exile appears to be their only way out. However, relocating isn’t straightforward with a family in tow.

As they adjust to their new reality, family tensions rise, personal limits are pushed, flaws are faced, and their values are fundamentally reexamined. The Ellis family finds themselves adapting to roles they never anticipated, uncovering hidden abilities, and coming to terms with the stark reality that their old lifestyle is gone.

Amidst this turmoil, Emily is thrust into the challenge of adapting to a new country and its customs, all while striving to maintain a balance between work and family life. The question looms: can she steer her family away from disaster during this tumultuous transition?

The Colours of Death by Patricia Marques

In a Lisbon where some have telepathic powers, Inspector Isabel Reis faces a mysterious death and a growing conspiracy.

A mysterious death occurs on a motionless train at Gare do Oriente: a man is discovered lifeless, having apparently smashed his head against the glass repeatedly. However, the circumstances hint at something more sinister than suicide – as if he was being manipulated by an unseen force. This event unfolds in an alternative version of Portugal, where a select few possess extraordinary abilities termed as ‘Gifts’.

A unique sci-fi mystery.

The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso

“The Returned” paints a vivid picture of life in Luanda during the bleak period of 1975, paralleling the struggles faced in Portugal at the time. The narrative focuses on the experiences of those returning from abroad, as they try to establish makeshift communities in temporary lodgings and grapple with uncertain rights. It highlights the irony of life in a luxury hotel that quickly loses its luster, turning into a rather sordid existence. The story also touches on the harsh realities faced by children in schools, where thoughtless insults are a common occurrence.

Set against the backdrop of the global phenomenon of mass migration in 2016, with countless people fleeing various conflicts, the book serves as a poignant reminder of the challenges and complexities faced by those seeking refuge and the often ambivalent nature of the ‘safe havens’ they find.

The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes

This novel, penned by Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes and first released in 1979, draws from his own experiences as a military doctor in Angola during the Portuguese Colonial War.

The narrative places the reader in a unique role, engaging directly with the protagonist’s encounters in a war-torn Angola, a land marred by the colonial strife and what the protagonist deems “the unbelievable absurdity of war.” The book delves into various profound themes: the countless, overlooked victims of the conflict, the state’s indifference to the suffering of innocents (especially the impoverished Angolan children and their dire living conditions), the protagonist’s emotional detachment from his homeland and family, the ever-present dread of death, and primarily, the nightmarish reality of colonial rule amidst a brutal civil war.

The Scent of a Lie by Paulo da Costa

In two Portuguese towns, interconnected stories weave a novel-like tapestry. An award-winning collection of charming tales.

The Tragedy Of The Street Of Flowers by Eça de Queiroz

During a night out at the theatre, Vitor da Silva, a budding law graduate, is captivated by an extraordinarily beautiful woman. She is Genoveva, hailing originally from Madeira but having spent several years in Paris. Now a widow, with her affluent French husband recently deceased, she finds herself in Lisbon, contemplating a new life there. However, Genoveva harbours more than meets the eye. Beneath the surface of the undeniable chemistry between her and Vitor lies a dark, hidden secret.

The Translator’s Bride by Joao Reiss

Set in the 1920s, this novel unveils the intriguing story of a grouchy, misanthropic translator on a peculiar mission to win back his fiancée. Along this journey, he faces the draining reality of dealing with others.

Reis crafts a narrative brimming with dark humor and a unique depiction of a man struggling against a world that seems to conspire against him. “The Translator’s Bride” stands out as a neurotically delightful read: quick-paced, engaging, frenetic, and spirited.

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James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.

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