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Translated novels for children and teens are a rarity in the U.S. publishing industry. Rarer still is a translated novel from anywhere other than Western Europe. The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli is one of the rarest of the rare -- a translated young adult novel from Latin America.
Acioli is a Brazilian author who workshopped this book with Gabriel García Márquez, the master of magical realism. The Head of the Saint clearly shows his influence on her writing. (That's a good thing.) The term "magical realism" is being thrown around a lot these days, used to describe virtually any literary fantasy. One of the things I especially appreciate about The Head of the Saint is that it offers us a good example of Latin American magical realism in the form of a slender volume for younger readers in the English-speaking world who may not yet be ready for One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Fourteen-year-old Samuel arrives in the small town of Candeia, homeless and hungry. His dying mother had asked him to go to the town to light a candle at the feet of St. Anthony. But that's only part of the reason Samuel has gone there. He has his own mission, too -- to seek revenge on the father who abandoned them. He takes shelter inside the the head of a broken statue of St. Anthony and, almost immediately, he begins to hear the voices of Candeia's townspeople who are praying to the saint. One voice in particular haunts him -- that of a young woman singing. He is determined to find her, certain that it is their destiny to be together.
And as for all the other praying townspeople? Samuel himself is a non-believer so he decides to have some fun with them, attempting to answer their prayers. Before too long, people are flocking to the statue's head and to Samuel, believing he is able to perform miracles. His "miracles" become a money-making venture for him, but they are crowding out his original goal of finding his father, and the praying voices are drowning out the singing of the mysterious young woman he's falling for.
It soon becomes clear that Samuel's presence is starting to transform Candeia. When he arrived, the town was slowly dying but now that their prayers are being answered, the townspeople once again have hope, and the town begins to thrive again, But not everyone is happy with Samuel's miracles and the town's rebirth, and that adds a layer of intrigue to the overall plot. While many threads in the story will be brought together and tied up by the end, readers will never be offered an explanation for the voices Samuel hears inside the saint's head. They just... are.
Beautifully written, with a strong sense of place, The Head of the Saint is the sort of book I wish we had more of -- translated children's and young adult books that make Latin American authors accessible to English-speaking kids here in the U.S., opening the door to a world of great literature throughout the Americas.
Reviewed by KT Horning