Brilliant! The best non-fiction book I have read so far this year. -The Telegraph
An embrace of myth-making — religious, secular and political. -The New York Times
Utterly astounding. -Maclean's
This prize-winning blend of history and memoir journeys to the islands of the South Pacific to explore the bond between faith and magic, the bizarre influence of Western Culture and the eerie persistence of the spirit world.
In 1892, the Bishop of Tasmania set sail for an archipelago of coral atolls and bubbling volcanoes in the South Pacific with the intent of rescuing islanders from lives of fear, black magic and cannibalism. More than a century later his great grandson, Charles Montgomery, followed the bishop's route through Melanesia, seeking the spirits and the myths his missionary forebear had sought to destroy.
Montgomery explored remote shores where gospel and empire never took hold. He rubbed shoulders with barefoot preachers, sorcerers and gun-toting rebels, only to discover that the pagan spirits were far more tenacious than the missionaries imagined. Melanesians had stirred Jesus and Mary into an already spicy broth of ancestor worship, ghosts, magic, shark gods and anti-colonial messiahs.
The Shark God (published in Canada as The Last Heathen) is the account of Montgomery's journey to uncover the legacy of the Victorian missionaries. The story is infused with dashes of anthropology, philosophy and a history thick with Victorian rogues, sorcery, sexual mischief and murder. But it is grounded in wry observations of the contrasts of modern Melanesia. This is a place where villagers pray to the spirit of an American GI for boatloads of refrigerators and Spam, where Christian militants pray to crocodiles to destroy their enemies, and where curses are meted out by wayward monks. We are introduced to a bizarre cast of characters—the shark worshipper, the soft-talking assassin, the leper prophet—and their stories reveal the ambiguous and bizarre consequences of the colonial adventure.
Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., Canada
Fourth Estate, US & UK
Bertelsmann Media, Poland
Winner, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction 2005
"Exquisite writing." -Publishers Weekly
"The Shark God, a travel story as dark and twisted as one might ever wish to hear … reaches a superb climax with some apocalyptically page-turning scenes. In this savage environment, where life is sandwiched between fire-breathing volcanoes and giant ocean waves, the people grab all the mythic help they can, spinning life-saving rafts from all the spiritual flotsam and jetsam that the world throws at them. I finished this book with a deep respect for their wisdom and common sense." -The Guardian
"On this voyage into the unknown, intensely described in rich and varied prose, Montgomery discovers extraordinary mythologies, unsettling rites and feverish kastom maintained by bizarre characters. These are vivid portraits that leap off the page. This uniquely disturbing travel book should be required reading for anyone with a sense of unease at the development of the modern world." -Geographical (Magazine of the Royal Geographic Society)
"An irresistable adventure in discovery, a journey into rough terrain and a revelation of the power of ancestral stories across cultural divides." -Jurors Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction (The Last Heathen won the Charles Taylor Prize for 2005)
"With this sprawling, complicated book that has at its narrative heart the impossibly difficult corner of the world called Melanesia, comes a display of a very real and memorable new talent. … a script as delicate and impressively beautiful as any essay of exploration that I have read in recent years. ...The endurance he displayed on his travels was admirable, the adventures he survived were tremendous, and the quality of his prose seems matched only by the wisdom of his observations." -Simon Winchester, The Globe and Mail
“Charles Montgomery is a great reporter with inborn faculties of empathy and understanding for the culture and psychology of the people he meets in his fascinating journey.” -Ryszard Kapuscinski, author of The Emperor and Shah of Shahs
"The Shark God offers a heady blend of history, memoir, and anthropology." -Entertainment Weekly
"Even though Charles Montgomery lays bare the truth behind the romantic notions we have long held about the South Pacific — a fiction of noble savages and exoticism that spanned his own great grandfather's missionary work to Robinson Crusoe, all the way up to the present day with the Trader Vic's/Tiki Lounge/headhunter kitsch of Survivor — he is no kill joy, skillfully managing to imbue his tale with suspense, sadness, wonder, and grace. The Shark God is just a hair-raisingly good read. " -David Rakoff, author of Don't Get Too Comfortable
"His observations on these conflicting and complementary faiths are as insightful as his adventures are breathtaking. This beautifully written snapshot of cultures struggling to exist in the modern world as they both overcome and adapt to outside influences is recommended for all public and academic libraries." -Library Journal
One of the year's 100 best books -The Globe and Mail
Editor's Pick: One of the top 25 non-fiction books of the year -Amazon.ca
“A new voice of great skill with an acute sense of adventure, a feeling for people and place, and a thirst for discovery…An extraordinary debut: well researched, compellingly written, self-revelatory and deeply sensitive to the varied truths of the South Pacific world it explores.” -Wade Davis, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and One River
"By far the best book of the whole year, perhaps in any field. ... Adventurous, thorough in his research — the history is as compelling as the journey — and sensitive to the customs and character of the people he meets, Montgomery has produced a remarkable work. If you seek only one gift this Christmas, ask that it be The Last Heathen." -The Toronto Star
"...one of the most thought-provoking accounts of contemporary religion published in the last few years" -Quill & Quire
"A fantastic cast of characters populate this book, and Montgomery is as adept chronicling his often unpleasant journey as he is discussing the dark implications of myth, magic and belief." -Outpost Magazine
"Of the many reasons to vigorously recommend The Last Heathen ... perhaps none is more persuasive than Montgomery's quietly astonishing way with words...an immensely fulfilling read." -Amazon.ca
"...a mythic work [that] helps readers understand their place in the world and their relationships with one another." -The Vancouver Sun
Charles is a contributor to Way Out There, Explore Magazine's anthology of the best Canadian adventure writing. Since 2001, he has won four Western Magazine Awards, a National Magazine Award and the 2003 American Society of Travel Writer's Lowell Thomas Silver Award for best North American travel story. His first book, The Last Heathen , Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia, won the 2005 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. The book was published internationally as The Shark God in 2006. Charles lives in Vancouver, Canada, where he is a member of the FCC, a collective of literary journalists who use stories about the world to shed light on contemporary issues.