The Witch of Portobello
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The Witch of Portobello

3.8 123
by Paulo Coelho

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How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves—even if we are unsure of who we are?

That is the central question of international bestselling author Paulo Coelho’s profound new work, The Witch of Portobello. It is the story of a mysterious woman named Athena, told by the many who knew her well—or hardly at all.


How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves—even if we are unsure of who we are?

That is the central question of international bestselling author Paulo Coelho’s profound new work, The Witch of Portobello. It is the story of a mysterious woman named Athena, told by the many who knew her well—or hardly at all. Like The AlchemistThe Witch of Portobello is the kind of story that will transform the way readers think about love, passion, joy, and sacrifice.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Multimillion-seller Coelho (The Devil and Miss Prym, etc.) returns with another uncanny fusion of philosophy, religious miracle and moral parable. The Portobello of the title is London's Portobello Road, where Sherine Khalil, aka Athena, finds the worship meeting she's leading-where she becomes an omniscient goddess named Hagia Sophia-disrupted by a Protestant protest. Framed as a set of interviews conducted with those who knew Athena, who is dead as the book opens, the story recounts her birth in Transylvania to a Gypsy mother, her adoption by wealthy Lebanese Christians; her short, early marriage to a man she meets at a London college (one of the interviewees); her son Viorel's birth; and her stint selling real estate in Dubai. Back in London in the book's second half, Athena learns to harness the powers that have been present but inchoate within her, and the story picks up as she acquires a "teacher" (Deidre O'Neill, aka Edda, another interviewee), then disciples (also interviewed), and speeds toward a spectacular end. Coelho veers between his signature criticism of modern life and the hydra-headed alternative that Athena taps into. Athena's earliest years don't end up having much plot, but the second half's intrigue sustains the book. (May) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Many people tell the story of Athena, the "witch of Portobello Road," who was abandoned by her gypsy mother, raised by adoptive parents in Beirut, and ended up living all over the globe. Look for the prepublication campaign at Starbucks. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Coelho (The Devil and Miss Prym, 2006, etc.) returns to his favored (and incredibly successful) territory of spiritual questing in this tedious account of a young woman's ascendancy as a guru. Athena is dead, and now a kind of hagiography is being pieced together to better understand this young woman of influence and mystery. A number of testimonies comprise the portrait of Athena, from her adoptive mother, to disciples, to the manager at the bank where she once worked. But instead of creating a rich and varied character study, the assorted narrators repeat the same facile analysis of the meaning of life. We learn that Athena was a Romanian orphan, adopted by a wealthy Lebanese couple. The two dote on their daughter, and turn a blind eye to her youthful visions and prophesies. When Beirut becomes uninhabitable, the family moves to London where Athena attends engineering school. Feeling unfulfilled she forces her student boyfriend into marriage so she can have a child to fill up the vast empty space in her soul; she flits from one endeavor to another to try to fill this unnamable void. She and her husband divorce and she takes up a kind of dervish-style dancing (which she shares with her coworkers at the bank-doubling all of their productivity levels), then moves to Dubai and learns calligraphy from a Bedouin, hoping the patience needed will fix her restlessness. When she goes to Romania to find her birth mother (she's sure this will help her gain a truer sense of herself), she meets a Scottish woman who becomes her teacher in the search for the universal Mother, a kind of New Age paganism that promises a healing path out of the chaos of modern living. When Athena moves back to London, herpopularity (and skill in prophesy) increases, and she develops a following-as well as detractors: Christians who accuse her of Satanism and being a witch. At turns didactic and colorless, Coelho's narrative captures nothing of the wonder and potential beauty of a life devoted to the spirit-instead, Athena seems little more than a self-indulgent girl. A disappointing rehash of pretty conventional spirituality.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Witch of Portobello LP

Chapter One

Before these statements left my desk and followed the fate I eventually chose for them, I considered using them as the basis for a traditional, painstakingly researched biography, recounting a true story. And so I read various biographies, thinking this would help me, only to realize that the biographer's view of his subject inevitably influences the results of his research. Since it wasn't my intention to impose my own opinions on the reader, but to set down the story of "the Witch of Portobello" as seen by its main protagonists, I soon abandoned the idea of writing a straight biography and decided that the best approach would be simply to transcribe what people had told me.

Heron Ryan, forty-four, journalist

No one lights a lamp in order to hide it behind the door: the purpose of light is to create more light, to open people's eyes, to reveal the marvels around.

No one sacrifices the most important thing she possesses: love.

No one places her dreams in the hands of those who might destroy them.

No one, that is, but Athena.

A long time after Athena's death, her former teacher asked me to go with her to the town of Prestonpans in Scotland. There, taking advantage of certain ancient feudal powers that were due to be abolished the following month, the town had granted official pardons to eighty-one people—and their cats—who were executed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for practicing witchcraft.

According to the official spokeswoman for the Barons Courts of Prestoungrange & Dolphinstoun: "Most of those personscondemned . . . were convicted on the basis of spectral evidence—that is to say, prosecuting witnesses declared that they felt the presence of evil spirits or heard spirit voices."

There's no point now in going into all the excesses committed by the Inquisition, with its torture chambers and its bonfires lit by hatred and vengeance; however, on our way to Prestonpans, Edda said several times that there was something about that gesture which she found unacceptable: the town and the Fourteenth Baron of Prestoungrange & Dolphinstoun were "granting pardons" to people who had been brutally executed.

"Here we are in the twenty-first century, and yet the descendants of the real criminals, those who killed the innocent victims, still feel they have the right to grant pardons. Do you know what I mean, Heron'"

I did. A new witch hunt is starting to gain ground. This time the weapon isn't the red-hot iron, but irony and repression. Anyone who happens to discover a gift and dares to speak of their abilities is usually regarded with distrust. Generally speaking, their husband, wife, father, or child, or whoever, instead of feeling proud, forbids all mention of the matter, fearful of exposing their family to ridicule.

Before I met Athena, I thought all such gifts were a dishonest way of exploiting people's despair. My trip to Transylvania to make a documentary on vampires was also a way of proving how easily people are deceived. Certain superstitions, however absurd they may seem, remain in the human imagination and are often used by unscrupulous people. When I visited Dracula's castle, which has been reconstructed merely to give tourists the feeling that they're in a special place, I was approached by a government official who implied that I would receive a "significant" (to use his word) gift when the film was shown on the BBC. In the mind of that official, I was helping to propagate the myth and thus deserved a generous reward. One of the guides said that the number of visitors increased each year, and that any mention of the place would prove positive, even a program saying that the castle was a fake, that Vlad Dracula was a historical figure who had nothing to do with the myth, and that it was all merely a product of the wild imaginings of one Irishman [Editor's note: Bram Stoker], who had never even visited the region.

I knew then that, however rigorous I was with the facts, I was unwittingly collaborating with the lie; even if the idea behind my script was to demythologize the place, people would believe what they wanted to believe; the guide was right, I would simply be helping to generate more publicity. I immediately abandoned the project, even though I'd already spent quite a lot of money on the trip and on my research.

And yet my journey to Transylvania was to have a huge impact on my life, for I met Athena there when she was trying to track down her mother. Destiny—mysterious, implacable Destiny—brought us face-to-face in the insignificant foyer of a still more insignificant hotel. I was witness to her first conversation with Deidre—or Edda, as she likes to be called. I watched, as if I were a spectator of my own life, as my heart struggled vainly not to allow itself to be seduced by a woman who didn't belong to my world. I applauded when reason lost the battle, and all I could do was surrender and accept that I was in love.

That love led me to see things I'd never imagined could exist—rituals, materializations, trances. Believing that I was blinded by love, I doubted everything, but doubt, far from paralyzing me, pushed me in the direction of oceans whose very existence I couldn't admit. It was this same energy which, in difficult times, helped me to confront the cynicism of journalist colleagues and to write about Athena and her work. And since that love remains alive, the energy remains, even though Athena is dead, even though all I want now is to forget what I saw and learned. I could only navigate that world while hand in hand with Athena.

These were her gardens, her rivers, her mountains. Now that she's gone, I need everything to return as quickly as possible to how it used to be. I'm going to concentrate more on traffic problems, Britain's foreign policy, on how we administer taxes. I want to go back to thinking that the world of magic is merely a clever trick, that people are superstitious, that anything science cannot explain has no right to exist.

The Witch of Portobello LP. Copyright © by Paulo Coelho. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Paulo Coelho, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947, is one of the bestselling and most influential authors in the world. The Alchemist, The Pilgrimage, The Valkyries, Brida, Veronika Decides to Die, Eleven Minutes, The Zahir, The Witch of Portobello, The Winner Stands Alone, Aleph, Manuscript Found in Accra, and Adultery, among others, have sold over 175 million copies worldwide, and The Alchemist has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 360 weeks.

Paulo Coelho has been a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters since 2002, and in 2007, he was appointed United Nations Messenger of Peace. He is also the most followed author on social media.

Brief Biography

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date of Birth:
August 24, 1947
Place of Birth:
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Left law school in second year

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The Witch of Portobello 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 123 reviews.
lit-in-the-last-frontier More than 1 year ago
This was what I call an ignorant snatch-I am racing past the audio books in my library, the name Paulo Coelho catches my eye, my hand reaches out on some self-propelled errand. The book has never found a place on my out-of-control To Be Read list, but somehow it has found its way onto my MP3 player in audio format. And glad I am of it. This book could not be described as plot driven by any stretch of the imagination. It is the story of Athena, a young woman who discovers that she has unusual abilities-the kind of abilities which in a less enlightened age would have condemned her to burn at the stake; but is this age really more enlightened? Throughout the book, which is told from various viewpoints, we follow Athena as she teaches herself, is taught by others, and ultimately becomes a teacher herself. As she works her way through the mediums of dance, calligraphy, and meditation, we see her discover her "center" and learn to channel an ancient spirit, giving voice to wisdom and warning. As a Christian, there were times when the themes of the book made me more than a little uncomfortable, but as the story flowed on, carried by Paulo Coelho's intense, gripping characters, one central truism came into focus. At the core of each of us there is a soul, and no matter what higher being we pledge ourself to (if indeed any at all) the essence of who we are is unchanged. In my attempt to better understand my soul I have never employed any of the same practices as Athena, but I can wholly understand her journey to find her center, because I have a traveled the same journey. I have simply followed a different path. The characters narrate chapters in turn, giving the reader a variety of viewpoints. As previously mentioned, I listened to the audio narrated by Rita Wolf, who did a marvelous job infusing distinct personalities into each character. Those not of a New Age mindset might find the premise of the book a little much to handle, but if you can let go long enough to immerse yourself in the beauty of the writing-Coelho paints characters of astounding depth-you will find a good deal of insight here. While character development is the driving force of the novel, there is of course some element of a plot, complete with a hint of mystery and suspense, which Coelho brings to a sound conclusion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked up Paulo Coelho's The Witch of Portobello because I liked the Alchemist, and I liked the idea of an exploration into feminine spirituality. I found that I was hooked into the story initially because of the immediate revelation that the main character had been murdered and the unconventional writing style of having the story about her be told by the testimonies of the people who knew her. As easy as it was to get into the book, I found it that difficult to finish. The initial intrigue into the main character's life turned into boredom over the details of her strange life. If the unusual nature of her life was supposed to reveal some understanding of the divine feminine, I found that it was only superficial at best and left me unsatisfied at the end of the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
You will actually have to read this novel all the way to the last paragraph to get it. Don't give up half way through. Initially, I was like, 'what is about really'. But I continued to read it, because I purchased it in Paris, with euros, and paid a premium. This is, how and why I ultimately decided to finish the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As some of his other books,.he brings his mysticism into the story, in this one in particualr, as with The Alchemist, there is story and characters that develp and you feel compelled to follow.
Victoria Sazani More than 1 year ago
a 21st century messiah story done in Cliff notes.biblical style. This story pretty much tells the story of a woman heralding the return of the Great Mother who was never really gone anyway, just ignored by women as they proceed to disenfranchise themselves, for literally god knows what. The confusion, the resulting persecution. Even the ending has a sense of death and rebirth. One correction tho, when it comes to parthenagenesis or imaculate conception, the resulting child can only be female. So we know that part of the myth can be put to rest finally.
Guest More than 1 year ago
That your broke and not so good looking? Read Coelho and have your self doubts reinforced. Supposedly we all need to know that there is more to life than ... say... life, but why people think that that 'more' is supplied by Paulo Coelho is beyond me. I have always avoided his books ¿ catch phrases like: '65 million people can't be wrong', and 'publishing phenomenon', don't convince me a good writer is involved. Unfortunately while I was out of town my book club selected 'The Witch of Portobello' and I knew I was in for it. Other than being a quick read, which probably appeals to many of Coelho's readers, I have nothing good to say about this book. The main character is rich, one dimensional and well connected and so is everyone else she comes across. Her transformation through travel, work and study is written like a fable '...a client at the bank where I work ...told me that your a wise man', and yet there is nothing allegorical or fantastical in this fairy-tale. Characters in 'The Witch of Portobello' do not journey, rather they tour trendy locations and experience things that could be plucked out of a Lonely Planet Guide Book. They do not study with discipline rather they get into circular arguments with their supposed teachers and bosses, usually over wine, and miraculously they stumble upon riches and magical powers. Finacially secure and nowhere else to go but up the main character, a single mother and college drop out, becomes a living deity. When the media gets curious Coelho offs her in a typical fashion and everyone goes back home to their pile of bills. All I can say is if this works for you, you deserve nothing but the best!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book started out quite strong. It reminded me greatly of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse in its spiritual themes of seeking greater meaning in everyday life and the beauty of the connections between everything in existence. However, about half way through the novel the spiritual ideas start to break down into flowery words and concepts that contradict each other and have little meaning or importance. Still, it was worth reading.
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A feel good self seaching.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You can view this book as a novel. Or you can view it as a self-help book. I have read a number of his books including The Alchemist and Aleph and with each one I learn something new about myself.
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I loved it, I didn't quite know what to expect/ I enjoyed it very much.
Aimee_Leon More than 1 year ago
This tale was spellbinding. I love the character Athena, she was so capivating, mysterious & unique in a very interesting way. Even though the story starts off with point of view from her family, friends and lovers. Athena had the ability to fasinate people with her wisdom. Which had people follow her, also had some others that try to end her. The Witch of Portobello was an extraordinary story that I've never wanted to end. Paulo Coelho is an amazing writer and never disappoints me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was a great read. Could not put it down.
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