Book Review: The Shark God by Charles Montgomery

Aug 18, 2008
I bought this book – it must have been June, because I'd decided to buy myself a book for my birthday, and after I'd picked something out from the highly unsatisfactory collection of Patrick O'Brian novels, I wandered back into the history and travel section. This is always a bad idea for me. I have a terrible weakness for good history and travel memoirs. So when I saw The Shark God on the shelf – memoir, travelogue, and Melanesian syncretism – what was I supposed to do?

The Shark God is the story of Charles Montgomery's search for adventure, magic and family history in the chaos of culture, religion and politics that is Melanesia. His grandfather had been a Protestant missionary there in the late 19th century, and as a boy Montgomery had invented great stories about his grandfather's exploits, risking life and limb to bring Christianity to the poor, brown natives of these islands. As an adult, Montgomery knows that his childhood imaginings are probably unrealistic and definitely more than a little bit racist – and he's left Christianity in the meantime – but he feels a connection to the place and wants to learn more. So, as a travel writer, he does the only reasonable thing: he gets a contract to write a book.

Montgomery admits that the thing that intrigues him most about Melanesia is the apparent paradox of Christianity and native belief still existing side by side. Although almost all Melanesians are Christians of some stripe, a number of pre-Christian traditions and beliefs still have a great deal of influence on peoples' daily lives. They believe in witches and curses, in magic stones and dances, in ancestor spirits and shark gods.

I think my favorite thing about this book was that Montgomery never really seems to get it. He has a genuine interest in the religious situation, and he does his best to empathize with the people and understand what's going on. He learns that his English Protestantism is far from the only valid form of Christianity, and he really believes in at least some of the magic that he meets. But he never gets syncretism, never seems to be able to move beyond “but that's not how Christianity works” and “but that can't really be real,” even though he obviously really, really wants to. The epilogue tries to come to some kind of conclusion, but it's patently false and too much like a moral.

There are no morals through the rest of the book, just stories that mean something. Like the Anglican Bishop who lives in a house with a constantly shifting population of locals who refuse to let him live alone, because that's no kind of life at all. The priests who use the magic of Christianity to fight the magic of evil sorcerers and exploitative criminals alike. The spectacular moment when, having talked a group of rebellious young men to take him to see the famous thunder stones on an isolated island, Montgomery makes it rain.

Overall, I think what makes The Shark God a success is that (excepting that awful epilogue) it's a book written with compassion, respect, and a genuine attempt at understanding. Montgomery knows that he doesn't know better than the people he's talking to – or the people he's writing to – and while he's looking for answers that makes sense to him, he doesn't discount the answers that seem to make sense to everyone else.

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