Candy Gourlay. Oxford: David Fickling Books, hb. 978 1 7884 5207 6, 2023, £12.99, 308pp.
Fiction, 12+ years
There are many possible readings of this challenging novel – as historical fiction, as a love story, as a coming-of-age story, as a story of colonialism, racism and exploitation.
Whichever of these aspects interests you the most, this is a page-turning novel, easy to become totally immersed in and to read straight through.
We are once again in the world of Samkad and Luki, from Bone Talk, in the highlands of the Philippines, this time with the focus on Samkad, from the female viewpoint. Samkad is now older and faced with marriage and conformity. Based on historical facts, 1000 Filipino people were ‘invited’ to attend the St Louis World Fair in 1904, alongside other indigenous peoples from around the world. For Samkad, this offers the possibility of escape from the constraints of village life.
However, when they arrived in St Louis, they found themselves positioned as exhibits in this massive show, living in a village they had recreated and putting on ‘performances’ of supposed village life designed to appeal to the many visitors. Candy Gourlay charts this experience with heart-breaking intensity and profound sensitivity. It is a truly shocking historical fact, true of other international fairs at the time.
Against this background, Gourlay creates a vibrant cast of characters, good and bad, real and imagined, whose stories we really want to follow, as well as charting the journeys and the various events at the fair with drama and liveliness. Samkad and the others are offered the chance to remain in various guises, but each has overtones of racist exploitation and scandalous discoveries are made about scientific experiments and the future on offer.
The book leaves you with a profound sense of shame and sorrow, though with optimism about the fate of many of the characters we have come to respect and love. It is a compelling read.
Review by Pam Dix