The Last Heathen
(published internationally as The Shark God)
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 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.
The traveller is inevitably drawn into the very myths he had set out to challenge. The journey becomes a debate on the nature of magic, myth and faith, and a metaphor for the transforming power of story.
‘”Exquisite writing…” — Publishers Weekly
The Last Heathen is published in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre.
The Shark God is published in the United States by HarperCollins, and in the United Kingdom by 4th Estate/HarperCollins.
“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
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“As both traveler and writer, Montgomery is a thoughtful and entertaining guide, and his story has rich layers of history and anthropology. … “The Shark God” is an embrace of myth-making — religious, secular and political. ‘Myth, like love, is a decision,’ Montgomery writes. ‘What it answers is longing. What it demands is faith. What it opens is possibility.’” New York Times
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“Brilliant! The Shark God is, in short, a challenging, exhilarating ride and read. Spiritual affairs in Melanesia prove to be as rich, weird, squalid, violent and engrossing as just about anything else on God’s earth….go out and buy what is the best non-fiction book I have read so far this year.” Anthony Peregrine, The Telegraph
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“Beautifully written and utterly astounding….A study in the transforming power of myth, and the unpredictable consequences of colliding cultures, The Last Heathen is superb.” Maclean’s Magazine
“On this voyage into the unknown, intensely described in rich and varied prose, Montgomery discovers extraordinary mythologies, unsettling rites and feverishkastom 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 irresistible 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
“With exquisite writing, Montgomery lovingly captures the beauty and the horrors, the mysteries and the shams of the people and places he visits. His is a skeptical eye, and Montgomery is resistant to the miracles the people wish to show him, which admittedly are not terribly convincing, but he doggedly persists, seeking to be convinced of something, anything.” Publishers 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
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 ascompelling 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 Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction
Hubert Evans Non-fiction Prize