Sylvia – Queen of the Headhunters by Philip Eade

queen-of-the-headhunters “The magic of it all possessed me, sight, sound and sense; there was in this abundant land everything for which my heart had yearned” – Sylvia, Ranee of Sarawak.

Where did I hear about this book? The beguiling title caught my eye on a bookshelf in a flat in Pimlico, London. When I enquired about it, the owner enthusiastically told me it is her favourite book. I was sold.

Brace yourselves for a roller coaster foray back to the turn of the last century, to Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The Kingdom of Sarawak, now a long-forgotten stretch of jungle in Borneo, bursts back from memory through the dazzlingly detailed biography of Sylvia, Ranee of Sarawak.

The biography naturally begins at Sylvia Brett’s early childhood in England, following the antics of the high society Brett family. The reader journeys through Sylvia’s painful but fascinating childhood, through to early adulthood where in 1903 she meets, and eventually marries, Sir Vyner Brooke – a ‘White Rajah’, heir to the Sarawak throne. It is from this point onward that the mysterious Kingdom of Sarawak unfurls.

Throughout the book, the presentation of Sarawak oscillates between images of savagery and gentility. Before the reader experiences any first-hand accounts of Sarawak through Sylvia, it has already been alluded to as a place of savagery and violence – the biography title alone (Queen of the Headhunters) suggests this. The regal wedding is publicised in the national media under lurid headlines such as: “Queen of the Wild Men of Borneo” and “Grand-Uncle of Bridegroom Won Savage Realm as Reward for Aiding Oriental Ruler.”

Despite this horrifying imagery, Sylvia has an unbiased approach to her new Kingdom, which allows her (and us vicarious readers) to experience Sarawak in its entirety. Her initial reaction is largely positive: “There was something fearsome about the richness of this ancient foliage in a land of mysterious legends and beliefs; and yet, as I gazed at all its luxuriant beauty, I knew that a long dark chapter in my life was ending.” Sylvia’s brother is more frank in directly challenging prevailing stereotypes: “It is too lovely a place here…. The idea that it is barbaric or primitive never occurs to one – it is a completely civilised and very, very comfortable life.”

The reader is offered glimpses into the scenery, customs and cultures of Sarawak, but with this being a biography, it is somewhat limited. Moreover, Sarawak is presented through a colonial, foreign, outsider’s lens. We experience the hospitable culture of the Dyaks through the meticulously detailed welcoming ceremonies, we learn about their loyalty to their rulers when jostles for the throne take place, as well as during the eventual cessation. We gain insight into the expectations of female subordination through Sylvia who initially struggles to comply, but then adopts behaviours that remain with her for life. “The Ranee Muda should be a thing apart, but what about Syv, the mad, wild Syv, must she be choked and killed just as she has come to life?” writes Sylvia about herself, followed by (many years later) ….”or break myself from the habit of standing whenever Vyner entered a room, or walking dutifully four paces behind him?” And of course, we do get an understanding of the headhunting practice which continued to thrive despite the White Rajah’s attempts to eradicate it.

Media coverage throughout Sylvia’s life continues to perpetuate the notion of a savage Sarawak Kingdom to lure in readers. In her later years, Sylvia takes advantage of this hyper-exoticisation of Sarawak to propel her own career in writing and lecturing on the subject. Sylvia and her daughters are chiefly able sustain themselves due to Western morbid fascination with the obscure far-flung Kingdom, and its unusual family dynasty. Strangely, the author uses the same ploy to lure in readers, and I discovered I too am not immune to this. As a reader, I am guilty for responding to the appeal of exotic morbidity; – the title was so beguiling I simply had to read the book. Ultimately, this book does not need to rely on such a misleadingly sensational cover to appeal – the vibrancy of Sylvia and her dynasty suffice. Readers seeking an exotic morbid fulfilment are likely to be disappointed.

This biography’s focus is on Sylvia as an individual, and less so about her Kingdom. Thoroughly researched and detailed; it can be heavy on the minute details, so the reader must be prepared to persevere. It is worth it – the myriad of blindingly colourful facts and events will astound and delight in equal measure. Experience the final hurrah of the White Rajah dynasty through this biography; it is a fascinating journey, in which we readers are privileged passengers.

You can also read this review on TripFiction’s website

More reviews for the biography Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters:

The Guardian’s review: Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters

The New York Times review: Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters



By night the mountain burns – Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

“Bad news for one family was bad news for the whole island”


Where did I first hear about this book? On Ann Morgan’s wonderful blog: A Year of Reading the World.

A beautiful book that unfurls the remote Atlantic Ocean island of Annóbon page by page. The scenes, sights, smells, struggles and soul of the island fan out via an intricately detailed narration from a child’s perspective. The narration follows a meandering, streamofconciousness, repetitive style to perfectly capture the oral story telling tradition of Annóbon. The stream of consciousness narration brings the childhood voice to the fore, reminiscent of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man. I must confess that my linear literature background made reading this an additional challenge, but not an insurmountable one, and I am so glad I persevered. Ultimately it was such an honour to experience the novel and island life this way.

Daily island life in this novel is disrupted by a series of tragedies; hunger, forest fires, infant death and cholera. These tragedies are an entry point for the reader to gain insight into religion, superstition, relationships, gender, language, remoteness and marginalisation on the island. The explanations and reactions from the islanders to these tragedies reveal a unique blend of Catholicism with indigenous beliefs. Catholic saints are supplicated for forgiveness, whilst gifts are gathered and given to placate the sea king.

Relationships: The most obvious relationships explored are those between children and adults, men and women, the living and the dead. Children and adults tend to interact in a formalised manner, and adults are not questioned or held to account by the younger generation. This is most apparent between the narrator and his grandfather, and serves as a microcosm of the wider adult/youth relationship dynamic. The narrator often rhetorically questions the peculiar and cruel behaviour of adults, with such stunning childlike simplicity it is heartbreaking. An interesting observation; the only adult to be named in the book is Sabina – the woman who sees the dead.

Gender: “Although men usually represent family security on the island, I always felt more secure and connected to the women”.  The gender dynamics are fascinating, and a real indication of how women suffer, and are often used as scapegoats to explain away the island’s tragedies. Women going through the menopause are misunderstood as ‘she-devils’ and one particular woman is accused of having witch like powers leading to a most unfortunate end. Households without an adult male are at an automatic disadvantage, and depend on the mercy and goodwill of others. The recurrent simple childlike questioning and reasoning serve to further amplify the inherent injustice of this.

Language: Language is exposed for its alienating, as opposed to unifying role. The narrator learns to read and write using language and images that have no meaning to him. This reminds us of how overlooked the residents of Annóbon are, and how their marginalisation goes beyond pure geographic remoteness. In a subtle twist, the reader constantly experiences a sense of alienation as the narrator often reminds us that many of the words used in his language simply do not have a translatable equivalent in Spanish or English. “In the language of our island we have two ways of saying ‘the sea'”. I was constantly aware of the fact that I was reading a book that has been translated from Spanish, with the additional layer of the oral  Fá d’Ambô foundation- reading in three parallel lines, or perhaps more appropriately, three intertwined spirals.

“In the language the song is sung, my island’s language, there is no polite form of address”

This was a fascinating read – transported to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with the privilege of peering into Annobón island life. I am grateful for the added obstacle of having to read in a non-linear translation, as it made the book all the more compelling and memorable. The overall tone of the novel challenges the idyllic stereotype of happy-go-lucky paradise island life. In contrast, the young narrator’s continued sense of foreboding and fear illustrate the very real struggles and harshness of remote island living. In spite of this, it is a truly enjoyable and illuminating read that transports and transfixes the reader to a unique volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean. Fellow armchair travellers, grab your canoe, and put this on your to-read list.

More reviews of By Night the Mountain Burns:

Irish Times review: By Night the Mountain Burns, by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

BookBag review: By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel

The Guardian feature: Translating the dangers faced by an author under threat