A coming of age story rich in Filipino myth and tradition, Candy Gourlay's Bone Talk is reviewed by Festival junior reporter, Phoebe Haywood.

Bone Talk is the wonderful new Young Adult book by Candy Gourlay. It explores a coming of age story and the American invasion of the Bontok Philippines in 1899 through the eyes of those already living there.

The story surrounds Samkad, a boy on the cusp of becoming a man, and his friend Luki, who is prohibited from performing the male jobs in the village because she is a girl, however much she wants to do so. Samkad is ready to go through his manhood ceremony but it keeps being disrupted by a host of dangers and enemies, including a violent war, the invading Americans with guns and their blood enemy, the Mangili. With constant peril at every turn, Samkad and Luki must focus on staying alive, let alone one of them becoming a man.

I have to admit, I read Bone Talk in a day and slightly ignored my family in the process. I found it gripping and I couldn’t predict where it was headed next. While Samkad makes a couple of bad choices, it’s impossible not to root for him and Luki, the latter especially since she is so go-getting and lively. The dog, Chuka, plays an especially warm role full of heartening loyalty, acting as a living indicator of character relationships; if the dog was happy, so were the people! But although she provides some great light relief from some of the darker aspects of the book, she isn’t completely separate from them and her inclusion actually makes many sinister moments more chilling.

Bone Talk centres around Bontok culture, in the Cordillera region in the Philippines, and its American invasion in 1899. It was incredibly refreshing to encounter a book willing to bring an unfamiliar culture to life for Western readers and which many books nowadays studiously avoid. Candy Gourlay, however, is well respected for her novels that draw upon her Filipino background and although, as she mentions in the ‘Note from the Author’, she does not “hail from the Cordillera”, it is evident that she has tried to represent its viewpoint, and Bontok customs and beliefs, as sensitively and considerately as possible. Neither does she shy away from portraying the more unpalatable aspects of the invading Americans’ behaviour and attitudes towards the Bontok way of life. In short, Bone Talk is unafraid to describe the destructive entrance of the Western world into traditional Filipino culture, even by more well-meaning and peaceful individuals.

Having met lovely Candy before at a previous ChipLitFest event, I’m delighted that she is also writing Young Adult fiction now. Although it sometimes reads for the younger end of the young adult spectrum, I am on the older end of the spectrum but I still enjoyed it immensely. It’s a truly cracking read.