by Tess Ulriza Holthe

This book was completely magical, which is why I wanted to start my new book reviews section with it. I gobbled it up in a couple of days, willing the bus journeys though some of Peru’s most treacherous and impressive mountain passes to last just another hour, so that I could get to the end of the next chapter.. and then the next.. After I finished I actually couldn’t bear to hand it over to a hostel book-swap, and instead carted it around for another 2 months so that I could enjoy it again at home.

The opening of the book explains the title:

“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.”

Told from the perspectives of various members of a group of family and friends hiding out in a cellar in the Philippines at the time of the Japanese occupation during WW2, the way that the individuals’ tales weave into each other is beautiful. The threads of their stories range from heart-wrenching doomed romances to sickeningly realistic portrayals of the violence and humiliation suffered at the hands of the Japanese, via tales of the Philippines from centuries past that help to explain the psyche and context within which the main story is unfolding. Throughout it all, there’s an overwhelming sense of danger creeping closer, and a growing sense of unease within the group and the reader, as the occupation progresses.

What’s really exciting about this book is that it makes the reader care hugely about the fate of the individuals whose lives they glimpse. It places the reader in the cellar, starving and terrified, worried for themselves and their family, and asks them how they would react to this situation. In a situation with no clear solutions or escape routes, the various paths trodden by members of this hotchpotch group are all given as much weight as each other and ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ are left out of the equation, leaving the reader to make up their own minds.

Although the story draws deeply on Filipino history, culture, cuisine and language – and taught me a number of things, for instance that the country is named for the Spanish King Phillip – the human emotions, actions and thoughts that form the threads of this tale are universal, and the fear and violence that slash across the book are reminiscent of a multitude of situations across the globe and throughout time. This makes it an excellent book to pick up wherever you are – I promise you you’ll be completely hooked by the individuals that make this such a special story.

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