Book Review: When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe

When the Elephants DanceWhen the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine reading a book that brings to life a part of the world you had never thought of before, much less tried to learn about. The Philippines – on any given day, who even thinks of the Philippines? Now, because of this book and thanks to the lyricism of Tess Uriza Holthe, I will always think of the Philippines – her dark past, her tropical wonder, and how this virgin island was not spared the yoke of the colonists, nor its heavy hand.

This is a story of the Karangalan family and their neighbors huddled underneath the floorboards of their home, in a cellar. They hide for their life, under threat from Japanese forces swarming the island looking to smoke out all Filipinos and declare them anti-imperialists. These are the last days of World War II – people are tired, hungry, and unable to die. The Karangalans and their neighbors whisper folk tales and family legends hoping for hope. In these are stories of love and magic, poverty and wealth, family, the little-known history of the Philippines set against the backdrop of Spanish colonization and the Goliath Catholic church… these are stories like you have never heard. And yet, so familiar.

I bought this book after having chanced upon it while looking at Amazon recommendations. I read the first page and was hooked. When it arrived in the mail, I savoured two pages and saved it. It was a special sort of book. Guaranteed to not disappoint How many of those have you come across? Save it. Save it for a rainy day. Save it for when you are lonely and heartbroken. Save it for when your home is emptied of love and laughter. Save it. Save it for when you need to be healed by a good book. This can be that book. This is that book.

Ready yourself for a commitment, for while this goes quickly, it goes much too quickly. Slips and slides down your throat like very good liqueur. Like a shaving of a truffle, it’s gone before you know you’ve tasted it. Holthe writes like silk. There is such charm and quaintness to the telling. She has somehow managed to write this story as if it had first been told in a native tongue and then translated into English i.e. it does not read as a book in English but a translation. But it is. You see? She has found a way to work in that disarming quality of not-quite-so-fluent-in-English storyteller. It’s damnably lovely because the language is a little antiquated and not quite so casual. There is a deliberateness to it, a hesitation, a lack of erudition I suppose, which is more than compensated for by the enchanting, beguiling quality of the writing.

These are fairytales told while war rages on. Nothing stops a story. Not time or language, not distance or fear. A story inside you means a story outside you. She reminds me of Marquez, or Laura Esquival, Isabelle Allende. That is the sorcery of the Romance languages. Yes, there is a war on, and terrible things happen. Babies burn, pregnant women are raped and used as shields, men are tortured with lances and whipping sticks. Everything is on fire. The land burns, the forests burn, generations return to the earth. And even this is told with the poetry of straightforwardness. No minced words. Hunger. Sounds of stomachs. Betrayal. The metallic taste on the tongue. Desire. The ball in the pit of the stomach. It’s all here. This is a book that gives herself to you. You have only to show up for the feast and the famine.

“Papa explains the war like this: ‘When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.’ The great beasts, as they circle one another, shaking the trees and trumpeting loudly, are the Amerikanos and the Japanese as they fight. And our Philippine Islands? We are the small chickens.”

I always say this: A good book is worth the ruin. With this one, let yourself go.

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