In this wonderful and unusual novel, Candy Gourlay sets out to give a voice to the people of the Philippines, where she grew up. It is set in 1899, during the little-documented invasion of the islands by the United States. Through the gaze of 11-year-old Samkad, we experience his pride in his tribal culture and his despair in seeing his dangerous, axe-wielding father humiliated by invaders with guns.
We are plunged into a vivid and distant world. The Bontok people are headhunters with a duty to kill their rival tribe. Their rice paddies have been carved into vertiginous mountain-sides. They wear breech cloths and tattoos. They believe animals’ souls influence events. However, this is not a novel where the research dominates. Gourlay’s story is involving, tense and emotionally satisfying. Her characters are nuanced and real. The language is light and pacy but also has an easy poetry that illuminates: “Our little village was draped like a cat over the mountain’s knee.”
The Ancients decree that Samkad and his father must visit the Tree of Bones and offer a chicken to the Spirit world, so he can be admitted to the House of Men. But when Americans arrive in his village, Samkad has to grow up fast and deal with the new conflicts and knowledge. His best friend, Luki, is a delightful, feisty girl, who is a constant challenge to him, as well as to the old ways that limit the role of women. From the moment we meet them both, competitively tossing pebbles into the eye socket of a water-buffalo skull – we are hooked.
Beautifully crafted, this story draws on different spheres – political, social, spiritual and emotional – in the way of a true classic. A truly brilliant read for boys and girls of 10+.