Michael Wood writes:
The novel is set in Lisbon in the 1870s: 1875 to 1878, to be precise, with a couple of flashbacks to establish the family history, and an epilogue placed in 1887, the year before the book was first published. It begins and ends with a house, as in Balzac, and the city – or more precisely, a certain style of life in that city – is in one sense its chief character. But the descriptions do more than create atmosphere or even give us this character. They hover on the edge of explanation, they promise to interpret a whole world for us; but tactfully never quite do this.