Saturday 7 January 2023

Wild Song by Candy Gourlay, reviewed by Dawn McLachlan

First the blurb and some background...

The year is 1904. Luki has lived a tribal life in the mountains of the Philippines. Now she's growing up, she is expected to become a wife and a mother, but Luki isn't ready to give up her dream to become a warrior. When her tribe are offered a journey to America to be part of the St. Louis World's Fair, Luki will discover that the land of opportunity does not share its possibilities equally . . .

The long-awaited companion novel to the Costa and Carnegie shortlisted Bone Talk.


A good book is one that draws you in and takes you to new places and new experiences. A great book is one that seems to physically place you there and sweeps you away leaving you changed forever. Wild Song is a truly great book.

From the very first pages of Wild Song I felt a profound sense of belonging in Luki's world. Despite my own life experiences being a world away from Luki's I felt that through Gourlay's writing I was there. I was right there in this mountain village in the Philippines in 1904. I was immediately struck by how vivid the text is, and that continues to build as the story develops.

We walk in Luki's footsteps as she makes the decision to leave the mountains and Bontok behind and travel with the charismatic American, Truman Hunt, to Coney Island. Luki and her friends and people from other tribes were convinced by Hunt to leave their homes to take part in the World's Fair. 

It's 1904 and the Philippines is under American rule after the Philippine American War. In the laws and the city there is a presence that aims to control how the population live, think and even how they dress. The influence of America is ever present across the island but in the highlands that influence still feels far enough away to not affect too much of their daily lives beyond the American school. Hunt was one of the American soldiers who remained after the war ended with the intention of getting rich on Philippine gold. He was a showman and essentially a Snake Oil salesman but he managed to build up a trust with the locals and they listened to him. When he told them that President Roosevelt had extended an invitation to them to come and take part in the World's Fair it sounded to many like a grand adventure.

The book takes us on this extraordinary journey across a landscape at first familiar to Luki but then reaches across oceans and the grand sweep of the United States. Luki's voice is strong and clear but from our cynical perspective (and with the benefit of hindsight) we fear for her and for the people around her as they are transported to become part of the World's Fair exhibits.

I feel like this book is the perfect example of how literature can teach us something new, but Gourlay does this in a way that is never heavy handed and the novel remains soundly enthralling and readable. The book is beautifully written and is lavishly descriptive but never florid. The characters are utterly convincing and express so much of their history, rich culture and identity without ever drowning the reader in wasted dialogue or exposition. 

I was bowled over by Wild Song and when I put it down I was changed by it. I felt introduced to a part of history that was completely new to me but one that I immediately researched and found out more. I missed Luki and Samkad and their friends as soon as I closed the book. So vivid was this book that a few days on I find I'm still thinking about them and their mountain village. I really hope that there will be more from Luki, Samkad and their family and friends. I love to think that we might follow this community through the next century and right up to the modern day. I can't help thinking that this book would make the most extraordinary film or tv series. In my mind's eye I travelled a hundred years back in time, half way around the world, over the wide pacific ocean, and across the empty expanse of the American West and Heartlands with Luki - and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

A truly remarkable book that I know will gain a well earned place on many award lists over the coming year. 

Wild Song by Candy Gourlay will be published by David Fickling Books in March 2023

Cover illustration by Leo Nickolls

Reviewed by Dawn McLachlan (aka Dawn Finch), author, poet, and former children's librarian

I am sent dozens of books throughout the year by publishers and book creatives seeking reviews. I never give bad reviews because I only review the books that I feel passionately about. If you would like me to read your book with a view to reviewing it please contact me first via my twitter account. My direct messages are always open.



Sue Purkiss said...

Clearly this is a must-read!

Candy Gourlay said...

Thank you, Dawn, what an absolutely amazing review! I'm so grateful to you.