Review Blog

Oct 30 2014

The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli

cover image

Translated by Daniel Hahn. Hot Key Books, 2014. ISBN 9781471402906
(Age: Adolescents - Adults) Highly recommended. The cover and title both suggest the unusual content of this novel, and the reader is not disappointed. The story begins with a young boy who is desperately trying to get to an address he clutches in his hand, stumbling along a rough country road with no food, or drink or companions, somewhere it seems, in South America. Acioli is Brazilian and began this work at a writer's workshop.
After a long walk from town to town, and finding himself ostracized from the community where his only relative, an old grandmother lives, Samuel takes to the mountain where he finds shelter and some solace curling up in the 'head' of the title, the head from a large statue of a saint that has fallen and left on the ground. Samuel's story is simple and at times confusing to the reader, told as it is in translation in a story-telling mode that is circular and embedded deeply in the culture from which it comes. Yet it is delightfully simple and charming, even when time is convoluted and dead people seem to be alive again.
When characters in the novel are revealed as having died years before, we are positioned to accept this time-warp, as Samuel's grandmother is depicted, early in the story, as not interested in saving the life of her grandson, yet we find out later that she died years before. When Samuel reveals that he 'hears' things when he is in the head of the saint, he becomes a modern celebrity, and the town is changed.
Not all people are good, we discover, and, drawn into the repetitive, circular narrative, we have to work to trace the real story line as the past and present become interwoven, statues of saints talk to characters, and sing, and dead people are sometimes alive and sometimes just bodies on a bed.
Dedicating her story to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others, Acioli's narrative is preceded by two quotations that suggest time as more fluid than it is usually depicted in the western world, 'time as a place', and that we ought to let go of our expectations if we are to be involved, indeed to relish, being in such a tale as this one, which is, ultimately, about simple human kindness.
Suitable for adolescent readers, and adults, who are happy to be taken out of their comfort zone, and to see the world depicted in a different light.
Liz Bondar

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