The Head of the Saint, by Socorro Acioli (Delacorte Press, March 8, 2016, YA, translated by Daniel Hahn), is a Brazilian import I picked up at ALA Midwinter because it is about a boy, Samuel, who lives in the titular head--a head that was supposed to crown a giant statue of St. Anthony, which in turn was to bring economic zip to the small Brazilian town of Candeia. (I really like stories about kids on their own making homes for themselves in odd places like hollow concrete heads). The head had never made onto the giant body prepared for it. And gradually all the townsfolk are moving away from the surreal headless colossus that is Candeia's shame, or dying in their hoes with no-one left to care. Samuel's father had left his mother before he was born in another small town a ways away, and never made it back, and Samuel, fourteen years old and alone in the world after his mother's death, was barely able to make the long walk to Candeia, his father's hometown, with his grandmother's address his only hope of family. But instead of feeding and sheltering him, which he badly needs, she sends him up the hill to the concrete hollow head of Saint Anthony.
A badly infected wound from a dog bite guarantees that he'll have to stay in the head for a while, and fortune smiles on him when he meets a boy from town who's snuck up the hill with a small illicit stash of porn to enjoy in peace. Samuel promises not to tell Francisco's secret, and in return (not just because of being blackmailed) his new friend brings him supplies, food, and things scavenged from the many abandoned homes. So the head is a reasonably snug shelter...but it is full of prayers to Saint Anthony, which only Samuel can here. Francesco, with his local knowledge, is able to pin specific prayers to specific people, and the boys decide they can maybe make a bit of money and have some fun by making prayers come true. Their first venture, making a girl's dream of love happen, is so successful that the head becomes a place of pilgrimage, and through luck and common sense, and quite possibly divine intervention, more successful romances are made. Candeia beings to live again; the abandoned houses are in demand again, the church is refurbished, and there's a small economic boom.
But Samuel, still living in the head, is plagued by the pilgrims outside, and prayers inside, and the one voice in the head he wants to keep hearing, a girl singing sadly beautiful songs morning and evening, is being drowned out by the clamor. And the mayor of the town is not at all happy (he's a bad one). And there is a sad dark story behind the head, and the misfortune it brought to the town when it couldn't be put on the body. And there is the fact, too, that Samuel is still alone; his grandmother shows no interest in being family....
But Saint Anthony, though he'd doing a great job with romance, is primarily the patron saint of lost things and people; and happily (because my maternal heart was so sad for Samuel), the lost are found and the book ends with hope.
It's a lovely moving rewarding book, and I recommend it very highly! It is fantasy, because there are magical elements besides the voices in the saint's head (like someone being dead, but still getting around and doing things), but the point isn't the fantasy, but more the interconnectedness of people. Quite possibly I found it very moving because Samuel is about the age of my own boys, making it natural for me to feel all sorts of maternal feels for him. But also I found it moving because it is such a clearly depicted set of people, many of them good people, several not so much, living their somewhat precarious lives as best they can. I also liked it very much because it is such a clear, interesting portrayal of a place I'm not familiar with. And I did like the little house inside the head, just as I thought I would.
In short, it was a read in a single sitting book(it's only 192 pages) that has left me with vivid memories. And lest I have made it sound too sad, I shall mention that it is also quite funny in places. And finally, if I were a high school English teacher, I'd seriously consider using this one--there is lots to think about, and lots to enjoy.