fiction, review

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s next novel after she took her Harry Potter series to its end. It’s the first publicly known work of hers to dwell outside the world of Hogwarts, and wizards, and magic, and children. Rowling seems to want to get rid of the long-shadowing image of children’s books writer and prove herself to be a versatile author capable of writing any kind of fictional narrative. People appear to have such high expectations, as I understand, and this particular book is said to fail to meet them. However, putting aside people’s general opinion, I think The Casual Vacancy is a great work and I am gladly satisfied with it. It’s a witness to Rowling’s established literary talent for absorbing, observantly, social conditions prevailing around her and putting them into words.

Set in Yarvil, where Pagford—and Fields—are parts of the district, the book shockingly starts with the death of Barry Fairbrother, one of its councillors, right in the evening of his wedding anniversary. It leaves one seat vacant in the Pagford Parish Council, beckoning purposeful people to vie for it. Howard Mollison, always aiming for the removal of Fields from Pagford’s official map, needs an ally that he can trust completely and sets his son, Miles Mollison, to run for the local election. This meets a serious challenge as Colin Wall, the local school’s deputy headmaster and a close friend of Fairbrother, tries to fill the dead man’s shoes and makes his dreams come true. Clumsy and anxious as he is, Wall seems to have more support from Fairbrother’s old, loyal ally, Parminder Jawanda, and from the social worker who has much concern for the drug addict living in their area. But the competition doesn’t stop there. Simon Price, a dishonest employee of some local printworks, voluntarily will himself to run in the hope that one day when he gains the seat, or so he sees his future will be, he can take full advantage of his position and make more and more money. As the story progresses, the reader can see quite clearly what motivates each of the candidates, what provides the basis for their politically wicked actions that at some strange point the reader can feel some understanding, though not pretty much approval nor sympathy, toward what they do and how they do it.

The Casual Vacancy has numerous characters without a single leading role. It feels as if the vacant seat left by Barry Fairbrother marks the non-existence of the said role, giving the supporting roles and even some fleeting appearances plenty of space to show up and get their characters under the light. Rowling, as an author, seems to have determined to create characters as natural and human as she can. And that’s what I saw here as I perused each of them through the beguiling narrative. On the outside, judging from a wider scale, Barry Fairbrother looks like a perfect character, kind, funny, fighting for the poor. But once we look at him more closely, from the perspective of his mourning, inwardly disappointed widow, we will find a slightly disappointing man with faults that make his ideal personality seem blurred and questionable. The same naturalness also applies to Fats Wall. Well, it is undeniable that Krystal Weedon is the center of all attention ever since the first part of the book that she seems to drown other teenage characters into shadows, but I found Fats Wall’s character more compelling. He is the epitome of the real teenager, restless, rebellious, obnoxious, careless, reckless, disrespectful, yet inside he is still searching for something, some direction which is very vague before his eyes. What Fats thinks he wants to do is live the real life, the real, harsh life. However, as obnoxious as he is, he’s still nothing compared to Shirley Mollison, the character I hate most. She’s the most hypocritical of all. She likes to be pitied, loved, admired and thought of as pure and an angel. And, what’s worse, she’s willing to do everything to have all those.

All the characterizations in this book show Rowling’s remarkable skill in creating and developing characters, no matter how many they are and despite the absence of the character itself, as is the case of Barry Fairbrother. She’s definitely succeeded in describing each one from other characters’ viewpoints and let the reader decide whether or not the way they see each other is correct. The core idea of the story is, I can say, very interesting and how Rowling executes it is very mouth-gaping as well, but the pace is so draggingly slow that I honestly was bored when I first went into it. It moves like a snail at the beginning, steady at the middle, and then seems to run hell for leather at the last several pages. Very fortunately though, the theme is new to me, and the development of the narrative seems so luxurious. It might be quite simple in some senses, but it’s very rich, like an expensive yet simply cut dress. Rowling always has it in her to provoke conflicts through humans’ deepest, darkest characters. She describes the conflict prevailing in each family forming the society in the book in such great detail. Reading The Casual Vacancy was like being viciously forced to face the bitter, painful reality of life that sometimes I was so unwilling to continue it, but then its appeal won my heart and got me back to it. The ending is pretty cliffhanging, and I’m sure it’s not what the reader wants. Be that as it may, to me it’s just the right ending to conclude the story and Rowling is so smart about it. The plot is unpredictable and strays away from its own long-running path. Rowling’s amazing style of storytelling need not to be questioned anymore, I think, for it’s already there and anybody can see it. What truly fascinates me is her ability to immerse herself in every character and come up with speech so typical of them.

Overall, The Casual Vacancy is a fabulous work of general fiction I always crave for. It has a weakness in its pace, but it doesn’t matter because all other factors can cover it. I really think that this is a great novel of J.K. Rowling, one that you should not feel disappointed about.

Rating: 4/5

review, travel writing

Titik Nol

Why do people go on a long journey? Some of us have this perverse obsession with far away places, somewhere beyond our reach. We want to travel, we want to get out of the box and experience something odd. But at the end, after so many miles done and covered, what is our final, real destination? In his latest travel book, Titik Nol, Agustinus Wibowo invites us readers not only to once again glimpse what’s beyond distant countries out there, but also to see the true meaning of a journey. He seems to ask us to follow him going in full circle and then decide what the nature of our journey is.

Unlike his two previous books, Selimut Debu and Garis Batas, Agustinus Wibowo’s Titik Nol tells about how he begins his long, adventurous journey and ends it in the very starting point. He starts it in Indonesia, from where he departs for Beijing, China, to take his undergraduate study in computing. After four years being embedded in the land of his ancestors, he decides that he won’t come back to his home country, but pursue his long, deep-rooted dream: travelling around the world down to the zero point, South Africa. Abandoning all the benefits and privileges of a settled life and higher education, Wibowo sets foot in Tibet to see Mount Kailash, the holy place of Indian Hindu people which is not, in fact, located in India, for some borderline annexation reason. After going up and down that highest mountain in the world, where you can virtually touch the sky, he continues his journey to Nepal, and finds a heaven for all the backpackers stopping by: cheap motels and stuff, discotheque, Western food, enjoyment, everything. Kathmandu is a place for tired backpackers to boost up their energy once more. But while it offers a heaven on earth, boredom seems to be the nature of its existence. Soon, Wibowo finds himself ready to go on and arrive in India. It’s one of the biggest countries in the world, no doubt about that, with one of the biggest populations to boot. Along with its developing economy, there are poverty and crashed dreams of its people who are forced to accept the unfairness of the caste system. It’s full of deceit, manipulation, liars, uncivilized behaviors. But when he faces its “opposite twin”, Pakistan, things couldn’t be worse. Contradiction, hypocricy, wars and riots in the name of religion, it’s all there. Pakistan might not be as growing as India, but its two-face nature is no different. But the worst view presented in this book is, of course, the face of Afghanistan. Nothing precious but wars, nothing cheap but humans’ lives.

In Titik Nol, quite unfortunately for me, Wibowo gets more personal and brings up his family matter, alongside his stories of stopping by and staying in China and South Asian countries. The experiences of his adventures mingle seamlessly with the miserable memories of sitting beside his mother’s sickbed he narrates. I found it too dramatic, too sentimental, and too gloomy that at one point I fell into suspicion that he has abandoned his particular writing style, of which hilarity and witty are the characteristics. But it turned out that I didn’t have to worry. All his personal woe and widely opened family problems do not prevent him from writing the way he usually does: funny, smart, objective, critical, and unjudgemental. The plot is in a very good pace, too. The switching narrative unfolding Wibowo’s story of his journey and his mother’s dilemma in the sickbed seems so fused and produces meaningful life lesson, if you want to take it in.

Personally, to be honest, I don’t like how Titik Nol turns out much. I didn’t expect it to be too personal the way it is. I’m sorry for being rude, but I never want to know others’ personal business, which is here being revealed for all the world to see. I am a firm believer in “your business is yours, my business is mine”. I don’t think it is wise, for whatever reason, to wash your dirty linen in public. What I want from a travel book is a sense of experience that I cannot have because of my own limit, new knowledge and insights that I can only have by reading books. Knowing others’ family affairs is never my goal in reading, much less in reading a book like this. I am a little bit disappointed with this book, despite the fact that Wibowo originally intended to present it to his mother.

Overall, Titik Nol by Agustinus Wibowo is a package of “personal” experiences, both on the journey and beside the sickbed of his parent. I still quite like it, though not as much as I expected to, thanks to the knowledge and cultural insights Wibowo brings out to the readers aside from his personal woe and misery.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Interpreter of Maladies

Indonesian edition’s cover

How does loneliness affect you? How will you deal with it? Can you interpret it? Jhumpa Lahiri, in her own way, has done it in Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection revealing several different embodiments of loneliness, and of alienation. It is not wrong, I should say, to think loneliness and alienation as maladies, for the two things are indeed what’s gnawing at us most. And Lahiri can cleverly describe those feelings through characters and simple narratives. I wouldn’t say that Interpreter of Maladies is a masterpiece, but it is a showcase for her literary ability to capture and transfer a seemingly belittled problem, which is truthfully never unreal in anyone’s life, into words.

The book consists of nine short stories, all of them are pretty well narrated. However, I won’t deny this, only four of them really captivated me, holding me hostage all through the few pages. In A Temporary Matter, the reader is presented with a married couple who seem to regret deeply the loss of their baby. They have not talked to each other for months and let silence invade their previously-full-of-passion home. The way Shukumar, the husband, describes it, his wife Shoba seems to be the one who becomes so distant after her pregnancy ends in miscarriage. But beyond that, he cannot help but to admit, though only to himself, that he has lost his love for her far before that happens. Later on, he finds out that Shoba shares the same feeling for all this time. The question of love is also present in the story entitled Sexy. It shows the reader the contrast between a woman whose husband is having an affair with another woman and a woman with whom a man is having an affair. Craving for love and attention, Miranda doesn’t have even the slightest hesitation to develop a relationship with a man who is already married. Here Lahiri conveys how loneliness can secretly sneak its way through people’s hearts and make them craving for something that results in others being treated unfairly. But loneliness can come in any form, bringing with it toxic feelings we cannot run away from. Depression and alienation are what poisonous to the immigrants in Mrs. Sen’s and The Third and Final Continent, forcing them to develop a new habit and cope with social and environmental challenges that are so strange to them. Being isolated in loneliness doesn’t seem to harass them enough, and they still have to do what any immigrant should do: fitting themselves to the puzzle.

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of stories about lonely people, those who are far away from home and those who are isolated in the society, and even in their own relationships. Shoba and Shukumar in A Temporary Matter had caught my attention instantly the moment the two appeared in a kitchen scene. Both were so silent, as I read it, creating an atmosphere so cold and unfriendly that they might as well be not a man and his wife. They were so out of reach, but the revealing narrative helped me understand their characters: dishonest, disloyal, distant. However, of the two, Shoba is the most attention-gripping to me. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to women more than I can to men. Shoba is a complicated person, her silence hiding more things than what we can guess through the reading. Her depression and disappointment do not show in her behavior nor in her attitude toward her husband, but in the hidden decision she’s made in silence, without even the reader knowing it. And, perhaps for the same reason, I feel sympathy for Miranda. I know she’s in the wrong, partly, for another woman’s ruinned marriage. She is so weak at first, falling easily into passion and hope of a true love, which happens to be concealed by mere lust. But then her sense of righteousness forces her to realize that she’s being unfair to that other woman.

There are some other interesting characters in Interpreter of Maladies, but I’m afraid I’m not capable of elaborating all my amazement for them. One thing for sure, though, they are portrayed so strong and fit each narrative they inhabit. All the stories tend to be ordinary, easy to read. They have no twists nor turns, no surprise, and even no emotional atmosphere such kind of stories should have. They all, I’d rather say, seem so flat. But, and I think this is the most important thing, their meaning feels so poignant, conveying the sense of loneliness and alienation in every possible way. Some stories end up cliffhanging, and some others are concluded in a bitter way. Oddly enough, that’s magical to me although I don’t think the narratives are quite engrossing, nor the storytelling is exceptional. However, the fast pace really helped me in enjoying and finishing them without substantial difficulties.

Seeing how flat all the short stories are written, yet how varied and deep they are, I can only say that I feel undecided whether or not I like Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri knows very well how to tell of, and talk about, loneliness, the one thing that keeps lurking within everybody especially those who are alien to their surrounding. I just wish it could be better than it already is.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The Cuckoo’s Calling

Indonesian edition’s cover

I would rather call it a crime drama novel than a work of crime fiction. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith does have the qualities any murder mystery has got, the investigation, the private detective, the case at hand, but it’s overwhelmingly blended with drama and detailed descriptions of troubled characters. J.K. Rowling, no matter how hard she tries to hide herself under an alias, still leaves a trace of her easily recognized, characteristic writing, in which a story of difficult life and thoroughly portrayed characters get the main spot. It’s not a fake crime novel pretending to be one, it just lacks the necessary atmosphere to support the narrative.

The story begins with the death of Lula Landry, a rich, rather infamous supermodel. She’s found lifeless in front of her apartment building after falling from the third floor and makes everyone, even the police, believe that it is an act of committing suicide. It’s just normal to have a troubled, bipolar famous person killing herself because, seriously, it’s no news to anyone. Moreover, the police investigation doesn’t lead to a different result. But while the media is busy exploiting Landry’s suicidal act, and gets a lot of money from every news consumer who believes it, John Bristow, Landry’s adoptive brother, doesn’t take a word of it. He believes, and is very sure, that Landry is murdered, pushed from her third-floor balcony. So he comes to Cormoran Strike, a private detective who was once a school friend of his late adoptive brother. Messed up, broken-hearted, financially broke, and having only one leg left, Strike has no choice but to accept the case. With the help of his temporary assistant, Robin Ellacott, Strike sets out to investigate this complicated, involving-many-people case: contemplating various possibilities, tracking down any proof, interviewing witnesses, perusing any possible course of events. And in midst of it all, he has to deal with the problems harassing his own life.

Galbraith, or rather, Rowling, doesn’t describe Strike as an attractive man. As always, she wants all the characters in her books to be as natural as possible, mentally and physically. Big and hairy, Strike gives the impression that people would rather look at the other way if it’s not impossible. However, like any other normal man, he doesn’t turn his back on female beauty and thinks that getting it under his belt is something he can certainly be proud of. He might look so introvert, gloomy, indifferent, and free-willed, but he is not weak, and very professional. His high intelligence is so obvious, proven by how his logic runs. He is indeed the private detective we all need in a crime story, except that we have to endure the narration of all his personal problems, which is quite unnecessary, I assume. Luckily, we can be gratefully entertained with how Galbraith describes the character of Lula Landry. She is not visible, her ghostly presence being tossed around from one mouth to another, from one perception to another. Her character is told from various points of view that it’s like pieces of personality being put together along the narrative and resulting in a spoiled, selfish, bipolar, unstable yet kind-hearted and caring person. Lula Landry may not be real in the story, but she’s the one who’s attention-gripping.

The fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling falls actually into “crime drama” genre, if I’m allowed to put it that way, affects very much its surrounding atmosphere. Rather than being mysterious, as it should be, it feels so dramatic and heart-tugging. It doesn’t have the thrills and spills, nor keep the reader in suspense. In fact, despite the murder case it comes up with and the numerous, puzzling clues scattered along the book, it doesn’t show wits or a fast pace or even any elements of surprise a crime story should have as an attraction. Rather, it runs very slow, though quite enjoyable to my liking, and moves with a flicker of random, guessing-game investigation. On the whole, it doesn’t look like a murder story with a troubled detective, but it’s more like a story of a troubled detective doing a murder investigation. Worst of all, this is quite subjective actually, I could guess “who dunnit” since the first few chapters, which was very much disappointing and didn’t make sense at all when you had hundreds of pages to read ahead of you. Well, nevertheless, The Cuckoo’s Calling has an interesting story, though without an authentic idea, and also great characterizations. J.K. Rowling will be J.K. Rowling, no matter what, and making such horrendous yet normally human characters is what she usually does in her stories. She has it in her to put several characters together to inflict conflicts that are, in some ways, insolvable. This detective story of hers does have an ending anyone would expect, but there are still some pieces of narrative which are left cliffhanging.

So, all things considered, I’m just going to say that Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is an enjoyable read, and pretty awesome in some of its aspects. Only it doesn’t have the thrilling atmosphere to make it a true crime story, so I can say that it fails in that part. Plus, I really wish the narrative could be as strong as my enjoyment throughout my reading it, which is not.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Room

A book can be as exciting as it is saddening. Emma Donoghue’s Room has proven it. A Man Booker Prize finalist, the book tells of a heart-twisting expression of maternal love written from the viewpoint of a cute, smart yet still innocent little child who is forced to weave his way through the puzzling “outside” world he never knows existing. It is mostly adventurous, but there are parts where its atmosphere drags us into a deeply compassionate feeling. I wouldn’t say, looking at the narrative, that it is a wow thing, but I dare say it’s a must read in that it shows us how to understand the feelings of both a mother and a child.

To Jack, a five-year-old boy, Room is the world, the real world where he was born, where he lives “a normal life” with his Ma. What the eleven-by-eleven-foot space offers him is all he has, all his Ma can give him. He just doesn’t realize what he truly needs, what the Outside world can be to him. Now that he is five, his curiosity is growing with the vividness of everything on TV and all the things outside his skylight. Meanwhile, Ma can no longer answer his numerous questions and explain what he should know by experience. Being locked up for seven years has been hard enough for her to bear, and she knows that neither of them can stay there any longer. But getting out of the coded Room is no easy task, and living in the Outside is even more difficult afterward. Jack sees the real world as a new, strange place and he’s scared of, though a little bit enthusiastic about, many of its things and inhabitants. He longs for going back to Room, where it is his “home”, where everything is normal and nice and believable to him. While his Ma is trying to adapt to the normalcy of life she’s once known very well, Jack has to learn everything from the very start. He has even to feel what it’s like to live without his Ma and trust his strange Grandma and Steppa with his life. At the end, he discovers that the Outside world is his actual place to live and that he won’t go back to Room forever.

Jack is really a wonder kid. He’s as innocent as any other five-year-old boy, but his limited space is the only thing to blame for his astonishing innocence, for his Ma has taught him everything she can. He knows practically anything, math, reading, common knowledge. In other words, he is as smart as he is naive. Jack is portrayed very dependant to his mother as well, cannot see himself away from her. And he is so persistent in his way, naturally, childishly stubborn sometimes, also brave and endearing. He is a boy anyone would want as a child. Donoghue has successfully described him in precise, contradictory detail. She presents to the reader every psychological stage Jack has to step on, from the time he is still in Room up to the level when he is already Outside. The fear, the excitement, the awe, the bewilderment. His every thinking and feeling are so brilliantly put into words with just the right dose of lucidity. Donoghue even describes Jack’s language development through his spoken narration and dialogues, and they all seem so convincing. It’s so rare for me to read a fiction book written from a child’s perspective, and Donoghue has amazed me with hers. As for Ma, her character is so resonant of a depressed mother. Caring and loving, she also longs for her old self, her free, young, old self. All of that longing, along with her depression, confusion, mood swing and deep maternal love, is depicted very clearly yet very subtly at the same time.

Room is excellently built, consisting of five separated yet seamlessly continuous parts. It feels unbelievably stressful at times, emanating an atmosphere of desperation and misery, but it’s also cheerful where Jack’s concerned. Though founded on a true criminal case, I don’t find it terrifying when the villain comes to the scene and steals the show. In fact, I’d rather think that Old Nick’s presence is, aside from quite significant, captivating and thrilling, in a good way. Meanwhile, every time Jack and Ma appear, the atmosphere turns lovely and tender and sometimes depressing. Ma has only love for Jack, but her terrible experience and depression complicate her mind and put more burden onto her shoulder. Jack is her only anchor to the world, but I got a feeling that, through Donoghue’s clever descriptions, she’s a bit burdened by Jack’s dependency on her. All those confusing, blended atmospheres are the result of Donoghue’s brilliant writing. It’s colorful, rich, connected to any reader despite being told from a child’s point of view. I must say that I don’t quite like the narrative, especially when they seem to get out of Room so easily then have to face paparazzi and get exploited in the media like instant celebrities, and I’m really disappointed about that. However, the pace is very flowing and smooth so you’ll never be bored in the middle of the book. What the best is when Jack has to deal with his bewilderment toward the world and adjust his every step. He’s quite smart and lovable about it, despite his innocence and very limited experience.

Overall, Room by Emma Donoghue is a fabulous work of fiction. I like the basic idea, to be honest, I just don’t really like the series of events, though it ends with a riveting conclusion. In spite of the fact that I hate how it goes, Jack’s story is profound and very powerful.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The Yearling

Indonesian edition’s cover

Sometimes, a book is so hard to devour, not because it’s very complicated nor using a too florid language not all readers can take in, but because it makes us think hard. It makes us want to run away because the world is too cruel for us to live in. It makes us realize that living in idealism is such an impossible thing because what we need is what we eat, not what we love and cherish. That’s pretty much what I felt when I read The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Pulitzer Prize winning classic. Reading it was like swallowing a bitter pill, unpleasant and so difficult. But, I have to say, that’s why it makes for a good read, and a great work as well.

It talks about the Baxters living in 1800s’ Florida. They’re a farmer family, relying heavily on their crop production and game for food. With his Pa and Ma, Jody lives on the Baxter Island in the middle of a dense forest full of wild, predatory animals. But it’s not only bears and wolves they have to deal with, but bad weather, severe winter, storm, flood taking turns to blast them all year. And that’s not to mention their fierce, bad-tempered, drunkard but helpful neighbors who always get them into troubles and dilemma, leaving them with a restless relationship with their closest relatives. But, of all the ordeal they have to face, Jody’s domestic pet is the hardest. Flag, a yearling Jody finds in the woodland when he and his father go for a hunt and takes into his care, is at first so gentle and docile. But the bigger it grows, the bigger the trouble it brings. Flag becomes very wild and uncontrollable, eating the family’s plants and crops, robbing them of their food to survive. Penny, Jody’s father, has been so patient and understanding about the young animal and its troublesome presence. But their lives now are at stake. They cannot live with another cropless season, and they need to, have to survive. This is no longer about having and loving a pet, or even about caring for a living creature. This is about survival, about doing everything to stay alive, including killing our beloved one. This is about how life goes.

The Yearling is actually a simple story with simple characters. However, there are certain complexities in them. Jody Baxter is a childish, spoiled boy, getting too much love and trust from his father. But he’s also brave and a hard worker, eager to learn anything and bear any responsibility. He’s also lonely and a loving person, hence the need to have something to love and pet, to ease his loneliness and need of friend. And once he loves something, he will do everything to keep it and not share his love with something else, not even think about anything else. But beyond all that, he’s only a child, an inexperienced, innocent child. His character, more or less, is the reflection of his father’s. Penny Baxter is also a gentle and loving man, and a hard worker, too. He’s portrayed as understanding and strong-willed, but he can also be annoyingly stubborn and firm. He’s physically small and short, but he’s as strong as the Forresters, their raucous neighbors. And those raucous neighbors are the most interesting characters of all. They are a bunch of loud, drunk, coarse, rude men. Ma Baxter even describes them as having a black heart. They’re mean and cruel in some ways, but they’re also helpful and friendly. Sometimes, as I read through the narrative, they are quite forgiving. Most of the times they are disgusting, but they have their own white sides. It was their characters that stuck me to the pages when I started to feel like I almost fell into boredom at some point along the book. They truly kept my interest.

This book has a gripping narrative, unfortunately the plot doesn’t seem to have any direction. All the events, all the problems and their solutions are told one by one, without being overlapping nor woven neatly into one whole story. They seem to stand on their own, segmented parts put into cubicles. One thing comes after another, and then another, and then another until the storyline arrives at the point where Jody has finally to sacrifice his beloved pet. It’s not like one story as a whole, it’s more like LEGOs with bits arranged together into one shape. Luckily, it has stunning characterizations. As simple as they might be, they are still portrayals of real people, ones that we can deem so close to the reality. The circumstances they bring also picture what truly happens around us. Rawlings describes them in great detail and very vividly. They are one of the factors that boost up the atmosphere so it feels so strong and utterly absorbing. I was so caught at the end of the book, which is very touching and sad and emotion-draining, though doesn’t feel right in my opinion. However, this book is still amazing in how Rawlings delivers a humanist message and creates such an imaginative, believable setting.

In conclusion, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling is a pretty great work of classic literature, such a shame it lacks the nice plot and an exciting ending. But I can say that I can absolutely take the message in, and quite agree with it. The Yearling is a book that leaves you thinking, trying to make of the world.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Pulang

History is a blank page anybody can fill in, written from each of their point of view. It’s like a work of fiction, merely a story nobody knows the truth. History is not shaped by the actors, but the ruler. Who’s the ruler? Whoever at the top of the governmental throne. Once the ruler changes, the history changes in result. Demanding a fact revelation of the history is thus a very useless effort, and hammering what I would call “our version of history” into everybody’s head over and over is just as unworthy of anybody’s time. I’m not saying that Pulang by Leila S. Chudori, which was first published in 2012, is a useless book to read. In fact, it’s worthy of our attention, for it’s narratively well written, very well constructed even. But the fact that it’s only showing who’s the victim and who’s the villain doesn’t make it a good enough standard for history-based fiction.

Set in 1960s’ Indonesia, the book begins with a prologue where Hananto Prawiro, a communist-affiliated journalist, is arrested for his left ideology. He leaves a wife and three children, being executed without trial. His friends, Dimas, Nugroho, Risyaf, and Tjai are dispatched abroad to attend an international seminar on journalism, and can never come back for their allegedly same political affiliation. Being on the radar screen, they don’t have any choice but to stay on the run, hopping from one place to another, from one country to another, breathlessly hunting for an identity like, borrowing from Dimas, “a soul chasing after its own body.” After three years of wandering, they finally settle in Paris as political exiles. There, Dimas meets Vivienne Deveraux, a beautiful Sorbonne student who catches his instant attention the first time they clap eyes on each other. He knows he’s still running from the government’s dictatorial grip, he knows he’s still in love with Hananto’s widow, he knows he’s still seeking something he doesn’t even know how to call, but he can’t help getting tangled in a marriage web with the French girl. Together, they have one daughter, Lintang, who follows her mother taking study in Sorbonne University. For her final assignment, Lintang has to do research on what actually happens in 1965 and the unfair treatment toward the families and friends of the members and supporters of Indonesian Communist Party. To that end, she gamely sets foot in the motherland she never knows, and risks being detected as the daughter of an exile. But that’s not the only ordeal she has to deal with, because she’s also in danger of falling in love with Segara Alam, the youngest son of her father’s former lover, and forgetting about the man waiting for her in Paris.

Pulang is filled with “ordinary” characters, not that they’re not superbly described, but they’re just like those who are living next to your door. They are not unique in any sense, but they are interesting, making you think of some saying that less is more. Dimas Suryo is a free agent, I would say, never keen on being tied to anyone or anything, love, politics, religion, ideology. He can’t even look at his girlfriend dead in the eye and say that he wants to live with her forever. That very trait makes him a fickle man, someone you cannot rely on. Sadly, that’s what he passes on to his daughter. Smart and beautiful, Lintang Utara becomes inconsistent when it comes to love. She’s a woman who doesn’t even think about settling down. It is such a shame that Chudori has to depict her as uncertain and indecisive, for I always think that a smart girl must know what to decide. But people do have faults, no matter what their good qualities are, and questioning it would come to naught. Speaking of faults, I must say that I have a particular interest in the characters of Hananto Prawiro and Segara Alam, who are both promiscuous, brave, and rebellious. I cannot say that they’re characters I’d like to cherish, but I have to give credit to Chudori for describing them in a very manly, very virile way. She really succeeds in portraying them, in my opinion.

To call Pulang a work of historical fiction doesn’t feel right, but calling it a romance novel is also wrong. And it does not essentially fall into historical romance genre, either. It has several elements blended together: drama, romance, and history of the 1965, which is thought of as the darkest and the bloodiest in Indonesian historical record. Chudori has succeeded in weaving deftly those elements together into a wonderful narrative. It’s just a crying shame that she doesn’t present the historical aspect in a quite objective way. By this book, she seems to merely pour her sympathy to the victims and cast aspersions on the villains. Not that I’m on the New Order’s side, but what happened in 1965 didn’t stop at those who held the throne at that time, if you know what I mean, so we cannot blame it all on them. It’s quite disappointing to have such judgmental tone, while the book has actually many great qualities. It has a great story, with parts nicely arranged and enjoyable to read, and also a very strong narrative. Its segmented plot is not hard to follow, running smoothly to the open, intriguing conclusion. I only have one objection to the writing, namely its diction. Chudori doesn’t seem to completely determine what language she should use, sometimes it’s too formal, and sometimes it’s too casual. Some words aren’t even put in the right place, for the right sentence. I found it a little bit awkward to read at some point.

All things considered, Pulang by Leila S. Chudori is a wonderful work, a wonderful story. Only it doesn’t have the objectivity I need in a work of historical fiction, if it falls into that genre. It has a great basic idea and marvelous, down-to-earth characters. I wish I could like this book more, but for all the faults it has, I really couldn’t.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

And the Mountains Echoed

Indonesian edition’s cover

Humanity is a very complex issue. What’s right, what’s wrong, it’s hard to decide. I’ve been a witness to Khaled Hosseini’s proving it in The Kite Runner, and now again in his latest work, And the Mountains Echoed. It’s a splendid book with numerous, neatly overlapping pieces of narrative and various human, unsettling characters. Through the many stories inside it, Hosseini once again invites us to understand the nature of human beings, and of being a human.

Those stories begin with a piece of narrative, where Saboor, an old poor man, brings his younger daughter Pari to Kabul with him. He tells his family that he will be only doing labor for a rich man in the city, and that Abdullah, his oldest son, doesn’t have to go with them. But Abdullah insists, and even though Saboor has already warned him, he refuses to get back home. So they depart together, Abdullah and Pari riding on a cart while Saboor pulling them. Abdullah thinks he’s only keeping his father and beloved sister company along the trip, but once in Kabul, he discovers the ugly truth: that his father is going to sell Pari to a rich childless couple to get some money for surviving the severe winter ahead of them. But it’s only a tiny piece of story among many others forming the entire course of events. Readers will soon find out that Pari’s heart-wrenching story actually begins with Nila and Suleiman Wahdati’s complicated, empty marriage, and that their chauffeur Nabi plays a very big part in it. It will also be revealed, later on, that the terrible ordeal Saboor’s family has to deal with at that time is not the only one, evidently seen in the difficult life Parwana, his second wife, has to lead. After the second half of the book, the storyline gets even more complicated with a story of Pari’s later life in Paris, Abdullah’s refuge in America, and of how a middle-aged surgeon named Markos Vavaris makes an effort to connect them via Abdullah’s daughter.

The threaded stories are woven together by the characters inhabiting their crowded space. It is quite impossible to elaborate all their portrayals one by one, but there are some main “actors” who deserve to put under the spotlight. I know the whole story of And the Mountains Echoed centers around Abdullah and Pari, but the fate befalling them will not be realized without the role of Nabi, their uncle. Out of love and ego, he comes to Saboor and suggests that he sells one of his children to the Wahdatis. Nabi is not a mean person by nature, and he is a very kind man and brother, but his desire to do everything for the one he loves has driven him to decide something so cruel and unacceptable. What he’s done hurts Abdullah so deeply, especially because the boy is very vulnerable and afraid of losing his beloved one. Abdullah may not look affected much by the loss of his sister, especially when the narrative shows that he can go on with his life, but deep down he’s not the way he is anymore. On the contrary, Pari doesn’t seem to realize what happens to her, for her life has taken her away from her childhood memories. Nevertheless, she is still described as mentally weak. Though very smart, she is not as determined as her mother, Nila Wahdati, who dares to fight anything and anyone in her restrictive society. But Nila is a very intricate character, too, charming and pretty, yet so lonely and mournful and emotionally unstable. She deems her marriage to Suleiman an escapism, but in it she cannot find happiness, either.

Every character Hosseini describes in And the Mountains Echoed seems to doom to weaknesses and damaging selfishness. They are heartless, merciless people without them realizing it. It is so hard to judge them, because they are all humans, and humans live with mistakes. What so amazing about them is that they are so deeply and clearly portrayed, bearing evidence of Hosseini’s indisputable talent for creating soulfully many complicated characters. But that’s not it. Hosseini is also skillful in not only writing, but weaving stories. The intertwining pieces of the narrative seem to be told at random, without considering where each ends and where each begins. But if you peruse them carefully, they’re actually written in order, meant to run smoothly and nicely to reveal the one core idea Hosseini intends to deliver. One story is connected to another, and another until they’re braided in a certain, beautiful pattern in which we can see the whole meaning. This model seems so ambitious, and is truly well executed, but the result is not really satisfying. There are some stories which I deem unnecessary, not having any significance in forming the storyline. They’re like loose threads in the pattern, not even worth notice. And, as a consequence, the atmosphere shrouding the narrative doesn’t feel as strong and poignant as that of The Kite Runner. Reading And the Mountains Echoed is, in my opinion, quite easy. It doesn’t need your extra energy, and won’t make you drained of emotions.

Overall, And the Mountains Echoed is actually a wonderful book, a collection of touching, marvelously told stories. All the characters are also amazingly described, inhabiting a space of narrative that’s cleverly woven. But there’s something missing, and without it this book feels a bit less.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Reflected in You

Indonesian edition’s cover

I was so caught in Sylvia Day’s Bared to You that it would be impossible not to read the next number in her Crossfire series, Reflected in You. To say that it’s better than the previous one wouldn’t feel right, but, on the other hand, I have to admit that it has qualities I deem magnificent: unpredictability and meanderings of a storyline. Horrendous, upsetting sex scenes are strewn all over it, a bit too much to my taste, but it has already been the characteristic any erotic romance has. As always before, its atmosphere emanates emotions and jealousy, and smells heavily of lust.

Reflected in You continues the story of Eva and Gideon where it leaves off. It opens with they arguing about their time together, ending with Gideon keeping an eye on her through a female bodyguard. Upset and irritated, Eva avenges it by putting a male bodyguard beside him. It may end their arguments over spying on each other, debatably out of concern for respective safety, but it doesn’t end the tension between them, with their never-ending fights and their sexual solutions. The real problem starts when Eva meets her ex-boyfriend, Brett Kline, a rising-star rock band lead singer, and stupidly returns his kisses in front of Gideon. The blazing rich man then punishes her with sex, the scenes being narrated making her seem like, if you’ll excuse my French, a slut rather than his significant other. The overuse of sex to express something unsaid also appears when Gideon has to avoid Eva for seemingly no reason and makes her think that they’ve already broken up and he comes back to Corrine. Up to this point, the narrative seems to me merely showcase two childish people with fervent desire for sex, not that I’ll blame it, looking at the genre. However, the conflict starts belatedly to feel interesting when Nathan Barker, Eva’s half brother, is found dead and Gideon comes under suspicion. The atmosphere suddenly turns from lustful to a little bit thrilling, and the author cleverly denies the reader the clear answer.

As the story gets more twisted, Sylvia Day describes the characters of Eva and Gideon in an even more twisted way. Eva seems more jealous, maniacal if I may say so. She has every reason to be jealous, but her overreaction and manner make her look shamefully ridiculous. I personally don’t have any respect for her, and her willingness to stoop so low as to give in to Gideon’s rough sexual lust robs her of the strong, determined character she should have. As for Gideon, I can thankfully say that his character develops better. He may seem so quiet in some ways, unwilling to express what’s inside his mind except through his sexual prowess, but his change in action and behavior is very much intriguing. His mood swing is also attention-gripping, though not in a pleasant way. I cannot say I adore his character, but at the very least he’s not annoying. Day describes him greater than she does in Bared to You, I think, daring to make him look mean, antagonist, and truly dangerous.

Though basically it is still an average erotic romance book, Reflected in You brings up something fresh with it. I never though it could be twisted in a tangle of murder and jealousy. Despite its sex-strewn narrative, it has a storyline no reader wants to leave off, so compelling and nicely flowing. It has more twists and turns, more intricacy, more intrigue. It is something more than what we read. The emotions show more clearly and feel stronger, in spite of the fact that Gideon is portrayed more silent. The core idea of the story is still characteristically romance, but its side elements are more interesting. The second half of the book serves the reader with a bit of “suspense”, which somehow reminds us of a crime novel. The murder of Nathan Barker really makes Reflected in You richer and more colorful, although in the end it seems a little bit detective-wanna-be. The thrilling atmosphere is so dense and, oddly enough, it can somehow fit the entire second half narrative where the case starts. However, I still have an objection to using sex as a problem solution, a means to measure one’s love and seriousness. I think it’s just normal for an erotic romance to have vulgar sex scenes strewn all over it, but that doesn’t mean that it has to deliver such ideas above. Sometimes a book is an entertainment, and sometimes it’s an inspiration. And when it inspires the reader to even think the wrong way, then it can be dangerous.

All in all, Reflected in You is pretty much like what I think Bared to You is, a mere romance book, nothing more. I wanted to look at it differently, what with its fresh intricacy and character development, but the ordinary basic idea and Eva’s hatred-triggering portrayal got in my way. I can only say that I don’t really like it, nor hate it.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Bared to You

Indonesian edition’s cover

The book industry is currently being peppered with erotic romances. Not that the genre has never existed before, but I always have a feeling that we are now overwhelmed by it. I’m not into it, and I don’t know anything about it. But the hoopla brought me to trying to read one of its products, Bared to You by Sylvia Day. First published in 2012, it tries to bring up BDSM theme, which is so highly favored these days like you wouldn’t believe. Only it fails in some ways, leaving the reader wondering if it is truly what it claims to be.

The story is about Eva Tramell, who has just moved to New York and got a new job. In her workplace, she meets the handsome, sexy, dark and dangerous Gideon Cross. The man happens to be the owner of the building in question, unabling her to run for cover after he blatantly declares his fervent desire to get her into his bed. But lust at the first sight happens, as always in any kind of romance, and Eva cannot deny the fact that Gideon’s handsome and sexy figure haunts her everywhere she goes. Gideon keeps chasing after her and approaching her in any way possible to get what he wants, while Eva keeps running and resisting Gideon’s strong sex appeal. But she terribly fails to do that, so they agree to have sex with no strings attached, without any bond tying them. Problem: Gideon loses control, and he never loses his control. That goes to show that there’s something more in their relationship, even though it is so subtle that not any one of them realize it. However, slowly they start to feel bound to each other, and it’s just about time. But they’re so afraid of taking a further step, looking at what happens in their pasts and the trauma they both have to bear.

Eva Tramell is the embodiment of a pretty, sexy, strong career woman of today’s America. Her quick temper and jealous nature make her look a little bit childish, and her insecurity is unmistakable. It’s so normal, I think, to have such quality since most women have the same problem, be it in reality or in common romance novels. I will not say that her character is so usual, neither will I say that she’s so different from other romance heroines I’ve encountered in love stories so far. I can only tell that her character is very much annoying, making the reader feel not even one iota of sympathy for her. Her childish manner and upsetting jealousy are so unbearable. And I really wonder why many romance writers I know like to couple a woman like Eva to a man as stubborn as she is like Gideon Cross. And his character is even more common than I think Eva’s is. A handsome, sexy, gorgeous, intelligent billionaire, Gideon reminds me of any “romance man” I know of, at least so far. Therefore, I don’t think I will be talking about him further. What becomes my interest here in Bared to You is the character of Cary Taylor instead, Eva’s bisexual friend. Not only that he is a bisexual, but also he is a very troubled, damaged person. I like how he is described unable to decide what he really wants, confusing one thing with another, and plunging himself into an uncertainty of sexual taste. Taylor is definitely an interesting, quite memorable character.

Saying that all romances, and its sub-genres, are just the same would be too cruel, for I myself haven’t read enough romances to say so. But, to be honest, I don’t think Bared to You has offered anything new, nor been distinctively different. The plot, the characters, the love story, the whole narrative are all so typical. The fact that it’s bringing up BDSM issue doesn’t help any as well. Reading it only gave me a feeling that I read a romance, a typical one, that’s it. However, putting that feeling aside, I have to admit that Bared to You has a few good qualities: an intricately difficult relationship between the main characters, heartwrenchingly troubled pasts, and a superb style of storytelling. I can say that I enjoyed the book, not in a way I usually did other romance books, but in an unexplained, emotional way. I was drawn into it, unable to get out until I finished and closed the book. This is a new, strange experience to me. I’ve never felt quite like this before when reading a romance. It must have been Day’s smashing style of writing, or something about it. What so unfortunate is that Bared to You implies a very unacceptable idea: when you have a problem with your significant other, turn to sex. Making any comment on this would be very ridiculous because it’s a romance, an erotic romance, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a very narrow-minded notion, as if sex can solve everything, not only our unruly sexual hormone.

In conclusion, Bared to You is nothing but a romance book with many typical aspects, yet inevitably gripping. I have nothing more to say.

Rating: 3/5