I knew when I heard about this book that I have to get a copy for myself. I bought this while I was visiting the Philippines July of last year and it was only fairly recently that I had the chance to read this wonderful novel in time for our Festival of Asian Literature and Immigrant Experience bimonthly theme.
Meet Andi (or Amandolina) and Bernardo. Rather than provide you with a snippet/snapshot of who the two main protagonists are in the story (half-siblings Andi based in London and Bernardo who just moved to London from the Philippines), I would much rather have the author introduce her characters to you through this video clip.
Worlds apart and virtually strangers to each other, these two characters need to find a way into each other’s lives and each other’s hearts. The novel is written in two voices – alternating chapters where the reader gets to hear Andi’s ‘lippy,’ outspoken, bordering-on-the-sardonic voice; and Bernardo’s all-too-real yet also oh-so-surreal story of life back in the Philippines.
Bernardo Carpio, Basketball, Folklore and Mythology. One of the things I loved about this book is how it remained deliciously contemporary despite its delving into the heart of superstitions, folklore, and mythology. I knew I was in for a treat when there were references made to the mythical character, Bernardo Carpio.
The young Bernardo in the story, being eight feet tall, was regarded as the living embodiment of this mythological hero who is believed to have saved an entire town from a massive earthquake. Such a coincidence that our young hero is named Bernardo and that after being the smallest one in class, has grown to a towering eight-feet tall, and from that moment on, the frequent earthquakes in San Andres, Montalban a very small barrio in the Philippines where he was raised, magically stopped. Coincidence? Strange quirks of fate? Or is Bernardo really meant to be the town’s savior, the hero that they are hoping would make the little tremors of the earth scamper in a different direction altogether? But what would happen to this small town now that Bernardo’s papers for England – reuniting him with his mother and half-sister have already been processed?
This is how the legendary giant, Bernardo Carpio was described in the book (pp. 17-18)
“Bernardo was a blessing,” Old Tibo said. “And he was right: not only did the villagers come to love
him, they came to realize that they needed him.”
One terrible monsoon, when rain lashed the village like a vicious whip and many coconut trees lost their crowns in the storms, the Earth began to shake. A few quakes here and there at first. And then, every day, a great shuddering.
One day the village shook so violently that houses crumbled as if they were made of sugar. Across the main road, a huge crack appeared, team hissing out in clouds. Peering down into the fissure, the villagers saw two moving walls of rock about to collide with each other, like a pair of monumental hands poised to clap. It would have been a collision so powerful as to destroy San Andres completely.
The earth began to shake again, and everyone closed their eyes tight, said their prayers and waited for the end.
But nothing happened.
When they opened their eyes they saw, deep down in the fissure, Bernardo Carpio, arms braced against the two walls of stone, his face twisted with determination.
And then the granite lip of the fissure crumbled, and rock and earth caved into the crack. And they never saw Bernardo again.
But the village was saved.
On the one hand, we see Andi’s troubles (not being picked for the basketball team on account of her being a girl, having workaholic parents who hardly have any time for her – among others) juxtaposed with the weight of the world’s problems ensconced in Bernardo’s young shoulders. I can not help but feel that this piece of literature is a delectable morsel with a variety of tastes that would deeply satisfy anyone’s palate. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Sinewy Threads that Bind Families near and far. I resonated with this book in multiple levels. For one, I have a ten year old daughter who plays for her school’s varsity basketball team. Bernardo’s experience in the province (with the stories of witches, manananggal and mangkukulam, the small-town community where everyone knows each other, the cheerfulness and unfailingly good humor amidst the poverty) also reminded me of my own mother’s and my husband’s province in addition to the devastating natural calamities (be it earthquakes or raging storms) that continually test the Filipino spirit’s resilience and fortitude.
This book has made me laugh and cry at the same time (and yes, I was reading the book in public, so imagine the concerned – or should I say disconcerted – faces staring at me and wondering about my sanity). I was particularly struck by Bernardo’s barok English – a Filipino colloquialism that refers to one’s difficulty in articulating oneself ‘properly’ in grammatical, syntactically-correct English. I also relished reading about Bernardo’s first few days in London, as heard through Andi’s voice (p. 85):
Everywhere we went, eyeballs tracked Bernardo like he was an alien from outer space. But the way he behaved, you would think that he was the one who’d stumbled upon an alien landscape.
He hesitated at the top of the escalators for so long that a queue formed behind us. I glanced over at Mum. Didn’t they have escalators in the Philippines?
But apparently he was just savoring the moment. Bernardo grinned over his shoulder. “I cannot believe. Yesterday only, I have be in Manila.”
Mum laughed, startling a bunch of people who were coming up the escalator on the other side. “Believe, believe!” she cried, like a mad person.
Ay kennat bileeb. His vowels were hard as stones. His English is very good, Ma had said the other day. Not.
What was classic though was Bernardo’s awestruck reaction when he saw all the Michael Jordan posters in Andi’s bedroom: (p. 96)
Bernardo had landed on the mattresses Mum had laid out on the floor. He rolled over on his back and gazed around him, mouth wide open.
What was he staring at? Did leave a pair of knickers on the floor?
“What is it?” I muttered crossly.
Bernardo pointed at Michael Jordan dribbling a ball above my bedstead, and then at Michael Jordan dunking a ball in a hoop, then Michael Jordan flying in the air with his Air Jordans akimbo, then Michael Jordan posing with Bugs Bunny in that cartoon.
“What, what?” I said, impatient.
“Michael Jordan,” Bernardo said, grinning like an idiot. “Michael Jordan is my biggest fan.”
I had to wake up my sleeping husband and read him that line the minute I read it because I was laughing hysterically and Bernardo’s voice sounded very much like home. While Bernardo sounds this way in Andi’s narrative (which is written in British English), Bernardo’s own chapter-narratives were spoken in the regular, familiar American English. My heart simply sprouted wings and reached out to these two beautiful half-siblings, obviously worlds apart, yet struggling to find similarities radiating from places of truth despite overflowing bathtubs, mixed messages, Velcro ties, and a magical stone that grants one his or her heart’s desires.
More than anything, I felt that books like these are important, and I am heartened that Candy has written about something that Filipino children in diaspora would embrace and value. It speaks of all-too-real events that people hardly write about. It is also a book that I know my daughter would love (I am re-reading the book with her right now). I just know that she would fall in love with both Andi and Bernardo – I know I have.
Author Notes and Recommended Activities in the Classroom. Teachers would be very pleased that the author has included a very comprehensive enrichment guide that looks into language and communication, differences in spelling (British-English), as well as a list of idioms, phrases and words used in the book. There are also recommended activities connected to social and cultural studies, as well as science (on geology, geography, and seismology). If you wish to know more about Candy, click here to be taken to the first part of our interview with her in Behind the Books. I am also excited to finally meet Candy this weekend for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content here in Singapore. Here is a list of her scheduled presentations:
ACWIC Session: Panel of Filipino Authors & Illustrators
Monday 28th May 2012 / 11:45am – 12:45pm / Play Den
ACWIC Session: The Use of Myth and Magic, History and Heritage in Writing for Children
Tuesday 29th May 2012 / 2:45pm – 3:45pm / Screening Room
Tall Story by Candy Gourlay with illustrations by Yasmin S. Ong. Cacho Publishing House, 2010. Bought my own copy of the book.
Kindle Best Books for Young Readers, Starred on Kirkus and Booklist. Nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Shortlisted for the Blue Peter My Favourite Book Prize and the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize.
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 55 (35)
Immigrant Stories Challenge: 4 of 6