This is an older book, first published in the early nineties, and a true classic.
Mathembe Fileli is a girl on the verge of womanhood living in a village on a far-future Earth, an Earth where biotechnology is the main technology, the dominant technology even in the areas where mechanical technology is still used. It's also a world with strong ethnic and religious divides, with the Proclaimer and Confessor religious split even on such seemingly minor points as which hand should be your dominant one. The Emperor Across the River, though, is a Proclaimer, and so the political power lies with the Proclaimers.
Despite that, the Filelis' home village of Chepsenyt is a peaceful and congenial place for the most part--until the fateful day that Proclaimer and Confessor villagers alike decide to shelter some young rebels, Warriors of Destiny, from the brutal justice of the Emperor's soldiers. From that moment, Chepsenyt is doomed.
When the soldiers descend, destroying the village and driving the villagers out, Mathembe manages to rescue her grandfather's head from the Dreaming Tree before the soldiers burn the grove. For most of the rest of the book, she has her grandfather's head with her, and receives advice, encouragement, and abuse from the dead-but-not-really old man.
That is not the weirdest thing in this book.
The language is lush and beautiful, the plotting complex and excellent, and the characterization subtle and nuanced. It's an allegory of ethnic and religious conflict, and yet McDonald is telling a story whose meaning emerges from its substance, not wrapping a message in the sugar coating of a story. It was perfectly clear to me that this is an allegory of Northern Ireland, of Catholics and Protestants, Irish and English. For others, though, it will be equally clear that this tale represents South Africa, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the partition of the Indian subcontinent, or some other conflict that isn't even on my horizon. This is rich, dense literature, not an easy read at all, and certainly not for everyone. For those who connect with it, though, it's immensely rewarding.
I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.