Thursday, 7 September 2017

Pachinko: gripping Korean family saga

The book for this month: Pachinko, by Min Jee Lee was recommended by a member who unfortunately couldn't get to the group. The 6 members there all enjoyed it immensely. The story of a Korean family living in Japan, began in 1910 concluding in the 1970's. Initial comments said they could not put the book down, describing it as a superb epic covering the tragedy and heart breaks of Koreans who lived in Japan since the 1920's. The characters were engaging and very believable. It was told in clean simple prose, a lot of the action happened off camera. While it focussed on the resiliance and gutsiness of the characters it was not melodramatic.

Anne told the story of visiting Korea and visiting the demilitarised zone. South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. There is a lot of prejudice towards North Korea.

A couple of members had read the interview with Min Jee Lee: she was inspired to write the story by hearing a lecture of the story of the Korean diaspora in Japan, and specifically the story of a young Korean student who had suicided following his bullying by his Japanese peers.

The main character in the book is Sunja, a woman from a small village, not a great beauty, but hard working honest family woman. Hansu, the yakuza (Japanese gangster) is attracted to this classic Korean woman. We loved seeing Sunja negotiating with the pawnbroker to sell her watch, and repay the debt for Yoseb. She was tough and determined. Her marriage to Isak saves her, but results in her living in Japan.

There are a number of marriages in the story, and the women play a key role. Parent child relationships are key in this book too, with a lot of emphasis on education for the next generation. The sacrifice of the parents to build a future for their children, is a classic migrant tale. Some of these relationships are challenging, such as Etsuko and her wayward daughter Hana. The challenge of keeping families together grows as the young generation becomes more mobile.

The themes identified by Min Jee Lee are forgiveness, loss, desire, aspiration, failure, duty, faith. Forgiveness was one we could identify. Noa for instance was unable to forgive his mother that his biological father was Hansu. He wanted to be Japanese, to overcome his Korean heritage. However, he could not match his ideals with reality. He was imbued somewhat with the 19th century novels he studied at University. His reading tastes were similar to those identified by the author.

The notion of home was very important in the book. One of the two epigraphs was by Charles Dickens:
'Home is a name, a word, It is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration.'
Home often being a construct, especially for these people who cannot go back to their own country. A number of characters in the book had returned to North Korea, but were not heard off again; the worst was feared. The fate of immigrants is to try and create a home in an alien environment.

We wondered how the Japanese would see the book. In Japan the acknowledgement of Korean comfort women was very controversial, so acknowledgement of the poor treatment of Korean citizens would be unlikely. Citizen registration for 'Koreans' in Japan continued til 1993.

Title : Pachinko: life like the game, looked fixed, but really chance and it's stacked against you. It's interesting that gambling is technically illegal in Japan, but the Pachinko Parlours get around this by offering prizes which can be exchanged elsewhere for cash. Pachinko parlours and associated businesses are one of the few ways Koreans can get ahead. And most of the family end up working or being supported by this shady business. Kim collects rents for Hansu, who describes him as 'clean wrapper for a filthy deed.'

So there was a lot to like about this epic novel, leading us into a world very few of us knew about. It was a life project for its author Min Jee Lee who has crafted a very readable and thoughtful novel, based on her interviews, research and family experience. It has one of the best opening sentences we have come upon:
'History has failed us, but no matter.'
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Our souls at night by Kent Haruf

Minerva members enjoyed this short American novel, Our souls at night. Many of us read it in one session. Haruf wrote this ‘homage to his wife’ as he was dying – one chapter a day.

The story is seemingly simple but actually concerns many issues pertinent to mature readers. It is also sweet and poignant. An elderly single man and single woman live next door to each other in a fictional town called Holt, Colorado. They are both lonely having lost their long-term partners. One day quite out of the blue Addie decides to change her loneliness for companionship by asking her neighbour Louis if he will spend the nights with her. It begins with friendship and slowly develops into a loving relationship. Along the way they change the life of Addie’s young grandson. However they live in a small town and gossip is their enemy. It ends in tears and secrecy.

A small domestic drama but most enjoyable seeing their friendship develop and how they are able to spread happiness around for at least a short time.

One member likened the tale to a fairy story with a dash of reality at the conclusion. The story is about dealing with pain as we all must and then just get on with life.

Louis and Addie are aware their relationship will cause problems but are not aware it seems that jealousy and backstabbing behavior is so rife in the personalities of their family and friends.  Narrow mindedness and malicious gossiping are still issues in the 21st century.

Addie Moore crumbles under the pressure of her son’s criticism and values. Her health also suffers and her vulnerability in body as well as mind is sad to see after being such a competent person. Her son is more concerned with his inheritance than her welfare. The son has seemingly good reasons for his behaviour but we were not convinced.

One member thought Addie and Louis were too kind to her grandson, a little bit schmaltzy but others disagreed. They were certainly very generous and kind in the amount of time they spent with him in comparison to his parents. It was just what he needed. He blossomed under the love and attention of the two devoted older people. Here Haruf is strongly criticizing the younger generation’s lack of parenting skills in a quite bold way. Haruf is also criticizing their concentration on money rather than the more simple pleasures of life, such as camping and working in the shed.

It is difficult to make such a poignant story out of simple pleasures but Haruf succeeds beautifully. One of the great strengths is the sentence construction. They are very simple and there are no qualifying clauses and phrases. A Minerva member loved the opening sentence – such a simple beginning but it conveys so much – ‘And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call to Louis Waters.’ It delivers the names of the characters and puts them in a setting immediately.  We did comment that Haruf has written numerous other books so he is an experienced writer with an obvious mastery for words and plot.  It could be likened in its straightforwardness to the Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley and the Englishman Ian McEwan.

Louis is a wonderful character who we all liked – one member would like one in her life !  We noticed that Louis is quite hesitant about Addie’s proposal at first – ‘what in the hell, he said’ (to himself). Addie discovers that she is not all dried up despite her mature years but can still have fun and enjoy life. And they give happy times to others such as the older neighbour as well as the child.

After the climax, the end of the sleeping arrangements, both Addie and Louis have regrets which is another reality check. They were fond of one another and of their arrangements as it gave them so much.  It is a novel in which so much is inferred – just enough to allow the reader’s imagination to take over.

The conclusion resulted in us discussing some of these topics such as sleeping arrangements and ourselves and others. As we age these ‘things’ matter more.

What a pity that Haruf didn’t live to know that he wrote a perfect little gem of a book.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Position doubtful by Kim Mahood

This month a select group of Minervans read the memoir, Position doubtful. We greatly enjoyed Kim’s writing. It has such fascinating and thoughtful passages on cross-cultural thinking.  We agreed that the general public’s acceptance of Australia’s Indigenous culture is taking a very long time.

We were reminded of a story by Mahood in 'The invisible thread' which …describes herself being in community and being responsible for providing assets/transport/facilities for others. Another book we thought of in relation to this memoir is Bill Gammage’s The biggest estate on Earth, how Aborigines made Australia.

Position doubtful is a combination of memoir, Aboriginal history, European history, Indigenous languages versus English, art of both cultures, geography of north western Australia  (WA and NT) and a story of her relationships with the people she grew up with.  It has many threads and it combines them with lyrical passages of description and philosophy.

Some of the themes discussed by Mahood and by us:
  • maps and landscapes, and interrelationships between the two
  • maps and different perspectives
  • maps and art - for instance with grids overlaying
  • maps and language – abstraction and metaphor  
  • horizon lines and perspectives – First nation people look at the horizon in art very differently from westerners (eg the paintings in the Canning Stock Route exhibition at the NMA some years ago and works from this region held at the NGA)
The mapping impulse was likely one of the drivers of human cultural evolution; and maps, the physical expression of that impulse, come to us freighted with the wonder of burgeoning human consciousness.’ (in chapter (Mapping common ground -- 63% in the kindle) 

(I have never thought about maps in this way—she is quite brilliant!)

As well as learning about these ‘map’ and ‘art’ matters we also learnt a lot about Mahood, herself.

Kim Mahood is very honest by stating her motivation for writing this book is to tell of her experiences working with the local people of the region where she grew up – near the Tanami Desert and the Aboriginal communities of Balgo and Mulan (East Kimberley).

Mahood is an artist in painting terms as well as a writer but can also play the subject occasionally. We discussed her slightly passive aggressive attitude to her friend Pam who ‘used’ Kim as the model in her arty photographs. She had to play a role in the desert as Violet, but she felt that she was a ‘female impersonator …  feminised self who has never existed’ (30%) or as a strange creature (eg covered in red mud). This is not Mahood’s persona at all – completely opposite actually. She much prefers the stockman’s role rather than the farmer’s wife and domesticity.

Mahood has been visiting this region for short sojourns (about 3 months) for over 20 years working, with the local people (especially the elders), offering help with their art or their lives in any way she can. (In her first celebrated book – Craft for a dry lake-- she describes the difficult return to her former home after about 20 years away.) The life up there is in strong contrast to the life we imagine she lives near Canberra as an artist, writer and teacher. Having grown up in this outback community she has certain rights that are advantageous for her work, such as deep knowledge of the culture and a depth in her relationships, including having a genuine skin name from her childhood.  Her skin name of Naparrula is precious for her and the locals. She acquired it as a baby: 'I belong to the skin group with traditional links to Tanami Downs.’ (Chapter Vertigo, 10% ). Such benefits help her navigate the politics of the community. Sometimes the community is very confronting even for a person who grew up nearby and knows the tensions and problems. She is understated in the book about these issues, but it is very clear that there are retribution and violence issues present frequently.

We discussed how Native Title has brought tensions with it, while everybody tries to work out the parameters of ownership. In this Mahood never labours the point. An ongoing issue one of our members mentioned is hearing impairment and the difficulties and problems for children. She has knowledge through her work of this ongoing health, educational and social issue in remote areas of Australia.

Mahood has the right to discuss the environment (in the social sense) because of her affinity with the local people but also because she told them she was writing this book and she actually read out bits of it to them. They obviously trust her and rely on her. (My conclusion is that we can rely on her being accurate in her writing.) We also realized that she is a strong woman – just driving that far by herself in worn out vehicles is testament to that. She is not a pushover in regard to the local larrikins and what they expect of her.

She writes of a visit to Sturt Creek . She initially thinks only a few people will travel with her and it ends up being a huge number. However she copes.

Mahood also talks a lot about tragedies and sadnesses. She mentions the massacre and many deaths of the local people she knows well. She was particularly close to many of the older women and is distressed by the deaths of these friends. Many of these women she knew as a child and she has a deep affection for them. She describes them and their families with great sensitivity, explaining that many of these women are elders in the community and take responsibility for passing on culture and language to the young ones. These women are also the strong ones in the community with a fierce determination to improve lives. White culture needs to own up to the truth of these stories of massacre and violence.

However Mahood does not dwell on these matters for too long but regards them unsentimentally.

We also discussed briefly how Mahood introduces archeology to some of the local people by telling them about the scientific work done by archeologists such as Jim Bowler. She invites him to visit Mulan and ‘to travel gathering and recording both scientific and traditional information’. (31%) Mahood is farsighted in bringing the two views together. Bowler had done some exploring in the seventies in this region so was aware of the possibilities. (See also chapter Dotting the grid, 67%).
We also discussed the differences she observes with the properties now being managed by Aboriginal groups in comparison with the old days of white pastoralists.  Her former home is one such place. It is now called Tanami Downs not ‘Mongrel station’. Managing the country depends so much on personal qualities and skills.

We also discussed the irony of the title – it relates to how white people feel in that remote part of Australia, as well as how many of the local inhabitants feel, and as a position on a map. (Its literal geographic meaning is mentioned in her first book in a more mundane way.)

Another comment made was that Mahood experiences landscape at a physiological level. Place can enter one’s psyche. How do we relate to place? Some people love the desert and others love the sea. Do we as white Australians have the right to love a place where other people live and have always lived? We don’t have Indigenous values or the same relationship with the land but many of us love it. Do we have the right to express this?

One white artist who loves this land is Mandy Martin. ‘Martin has built an artistic oeuvre on painting the Australian landscape, depicting it in Romantic Sublime style as a threatened space and an aesthetic resource.’ (Chapter Mapping common ground, 78%)    

Her writing is superb and thought provoking – eg ‘the names have found their way to you along a whispered thread of folklore’ (Chapter 1,The remembered earth, 1% ). Her thinking about place and landscape is very thoughtful, for instance:

I wonder sometimes if the time I’ve spent in the desert has compromised my access to the deep psychology of my own culture – replaced the collective unconscious with the shadowy glimpses of a place-based collective conscious, and sentenced me to wander in the borderlands between Jung and geography. 

(It is a book to be studied in great depth.)

One small objection we all had whether we read it in paperback form or on the kindle was that the illustrations are terrible. You just cannot see the details of the maps or the photographs. This was a great pity for a book which talks so much about place and maps.

I would also like to recommend an interviewwith the historian Darrell Lewis where he talks about the travels of Leichhardt in the far corner of Western Australia. I found this fascinating.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ian McEwan's Nutshell

Ian McEwan's latest novel Nutshell, which is a riff on Hamlet complete with a foetus-narrator, provided Minervans with a lot to think about. While it was (almost) universally loved, we didn't necessarily come to a lot of consensus about what it was all about, or why McEwan did what he did, but we did enjoy discussing it.

The plot briefly. The novel commences with:
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting, waiting and wondering who I'm in, what I'm in for.
The Hamlet motif reveals itself early as he (our foetus that is) starts to realise that "a vile enterprise" is being conspired by his mother and her lover Claude, and when also in the first chapter, our foetus starts to ponder on his existence - "to be" he wonders. What does this "being" mean for him? From this point the plot of this murder-mystery novel develops - with the first half focused on "will they do it?" and the second half on "will they get away with it?" - while at the same time our foetus ponders questions about life in general and the world he is soon to be born into.

The things we enjoyed

We found it clever, twisty, exciting, and thought the language was brilliant. We like McEwan's compact, tight writing. We agree that McEwan is great at openings, and that this book's opening sentence was yet another such opening. We loved McEwan's wordsmithery. It was very funny at times, such as the foetus' attempted suicide by squeezing the cord around his neck, not realising that as he lost consciousness he would let go.

We enjoyed it as a retelling of Hamlet, including the names Trudy (Gertrude), Claude (Claudius), and the ghost appearing.

We found the precocious foetus-narrator fun to read. Even those who were originally sceptical about the idea found themselves drawn in, while others felt it was McEwan playing with that question we all have about what DO foetuses experience of the outside world. We liked that he was not as easily taken in by, say Elodie, his father's possible lover, as Trudy and Claude were. And we laughed at his learning about the world through Radio 4, at how he'd give his mother a kick in the night to encourage insomnia and the turning on of the radio.

We liked that Trudy finally saw Claude for what he was. We thought Claude was a well-drawn character. He's cliche-ridden, dull, a man who

whistles continually, not songs, but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia's mockery of Tárrega [...] Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose. But at this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it.

We wondered why the house in which Trudy and Claude lived was so squalid, but one member suggested it reflects their characters or personalities.

We enjoyed the "Inspector Columbo" or "Vera" style detective who lulled them into thinking she was on their side, before dropping her real ideas.

A member commented on enjoying the pithy statements/questions at the end of every chapter. In other hands, this would signal a potboiler but it worked - it was part of McEwan's game, in a way.

What is it about?

It's a small, but complex book, and we spent quite a bit of time discussing its meaning. Why did McEwan write it, we wondered? One member, in fact, said that when she got to the end, she wondered what it was all about, and then decided she didn't care because "it was fabulous".

It contains much philosophical discussion, another said, about the Enlightenment and the end of rationalism, about the undermining of a scientific understanding of, or approach to, the world.

Other ideas we had about its themes included:
  • the political challenges of the modern world: breakdown of both socialist and capitalist nations; the problem of climate change; the increasing loss of liberty in the face of security; the nuclear threat. Many of these are ongoing McEwan concerns.
  • a discussion of innocence. Our foetus-narrator sees himself as innocent but fears being implicated in a plot he can't avoid. 
  • exploration of acting in anger/haste. Trudy seems to regret pretty immediately, what she's done.
  • the idea that murdering the poet-father represents a triumph of materialism over things of the spirit.
One member liked the following quote, and suggested it links to Hamlet's considerations about life/existence:

It's already clear to me how much of life is forgotten, even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence. When she's no longer twenty-eight and pregnant and beautiful, or even free, she won't remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on the slate, the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal's thong between her toes, the summer's warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone, already.

Some reservations

One member in particular had some reservations. She became annoyed by voice of foetus, finding him too smart-alecky, particularly with all his wine-talk. She agreed that McEwan is a good story-teller but felt the book became a bit strained in the second half.

Why choose a foetus as a narrator?

This question challenged us quite a bit. Our answers included, that:
  • we are all interested in what foetuses in the womb experience of the outside world and this is McEwan's imaginative exploration of that.
  • it enabled McEwan to have an innocent narrator, "a blank slate", who was able to comment on the state of the world.
  • the disregard shown for the foetus, by both his mother, uncle and father in their behaviour and planning, is ironic - a child is at the centre of the book but the people most responsible for the child aren't child-centred. Does this also reflect our current world's treatment of children? 
  • it presents the idea that the child represents the future, a future that the others don't seem to be interested in, suggesting that society is not responding to the new world.
  • it is an ironic reflection on Hamlet's inaction - our foetal-Hamlet is physically restrained so can't act his mind.
  • it enables the foetus to explore that question of whether we should bring a child into the modern world. (Our foetus says "yes")
We also discussed the reliability of the foetus as a narrator. Is McEwan playing with the idea of an unreliable narrator. Is he unreliable?

Overall, a good read, a good bookgroup book, which provided an entertaining and engaging night's discussion. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Black rock white city by A S Patric

Black rock white city by A S Patrić brought all the Minervans out on a cold wet Canberra evening. We all loved it and admired the writing, the down-to-earth language and the way the author dealt with the powerful themes of war, guilt, love and hate. We were reminded of the other book we have read about the 1990s war in Yugoslavia called The hired man by Aminatta Forna which is about the Croatian experience.

The story revolves around Jovan and his wife Suzana, from Yugoslavia who witnessed the war, saw the destruction and suffered the death of their beloved children. After that great trauma they made it to Australia. Their life in Australia is in much reduced financial circumstances. They were both University teachers and writers and now they are cleaners and carers. Their marriage is still suffering because they can’t move on from their tragedy. However the ending suggests that Suzana’s love for Jovan is rekindling and despite everything there is hope. His love for her hasn’t diminished but he does have a sexual outlet.

This novel by A S Patrić is the first by this author (aged 44) who has had many short stories published and with this novel won the 2016  Miles Franklin award. As the son of Yugoslavian migrants he understands his subject well. Patrić located the cover of the paperback version of this book. It is a Rorschach picture, appearing a bit like a poppy.

Some initial comments included that it was ‘Nabakovian’, it was masterly writing, it keeps surprising the reader and it has a tension at times of a thriller or a mystery. One perceptive reaction was about Jovan’s failure to be articulate in English when he was so articulate in his native language. Another member commented on the relationships between the cleaners and the medical staff in the small hospital where Jovan works. Our medical members thought this was possible and had experienced this closeness themselves some years ago. Why is Tammie the dentist interested in Jovan? It seems purely sexual because he is attractive physically and she is lonely.

Patrić’s language is very 21st century Australian lingo.  The story contains many of life’s ordinary experiences from sex (within the first few pages) to quiet humour and mundane descriptions of hanging washing and women’s makeup, all the time keeping you entertained and wanting to read on. All the short stories and the poetry he has written have trained him to set the scene with as few words as possible, and this works so well in this novel. The variety of sentences keeps the flow and the tensions suspended. There is so much packed into a smallish book. 

Dr Graffito had become such an interesting presence in the hospital. Where previously a person could die of boredom listening to people bitch and moan about every mundane detail in their trivial lives, now there were these biting messages to make everyone jump, scratching at their Trojan Fleas. (Loc 3141, 92%).

The rough language between Suzana and her friend Jelka is a normal way of talking for some people particularly those from the Central Europe but also many Australians now.

We talked a lot about war – how the reactions by the people experiencing it are always going to be different from the people who only read about it or see it on television. In this novel Patrić emphasizes the difficulty of knowing when to leave a conflict zone – Jovan and Suzana found it very difficult to leave and regret that they didn’t leave sooner. Migrants who become Australians must all feel regret at leaving their homeland but it is more impacted when the country is dissolving as well.  Patrić has a clever way of getting the reader involved in the atmosphere of the conflict and the consequences, without actually taking you into the zone.  He also doesn’t dwell too much on any one aspect by having a number of threads working through the novel.

Wars finish but impact stays on. The couple are just hanging on in Melbourne, often close to splitting.  They are questioning everything. The trip to Queensland was supposed to help but seemed to make the situation worse. Suzana didn’t love Jovan anymore. But the jealousy she feels when she sees Tammie makes her want Jovan more. The sense of trauma and dislocation for Jovan and Suzana is pervasive through the novel. They don’t have anything to say to each other. Just small acts of kindness help them.

Guilt is another overriding theme – especially the guilt of their children’s deaths. This is all-consuming for the main characters. Then there is the guilt of the graffiti vandal in the hospital, which Jovan is continually being asked to clean away and which seems to be taking on a personal vendetta against him. One or two members suspected it was Jovan doing the graffiti at one stage. There is a plethora of possible people in the hospital as far as Jovan is concerned – it is also fascinating how Jovan keeps some of the evidence and refuses to discuss it with the journalist. The hospital officials are not looking at the words, they just wanted it gone. They do not to read any meaning into it whereas Jovan tries to understand the anger and hatred being shown.


Dr Graffito is increasing the violence in the people in the hospital. Bill kills the nurse, the Optometrist suicides and at the end Dr Graffito teases Jovan to kill him after he almost drowns Suzana.  Dr Graffito brought it upon himself. Jovan is still feeling guilty that he didn’t protect his children better so he has to look after Suzana. He has to become a hero and be the man she wants him to be. Is Dr Graffito focusing on Jovan? Is it personal? Dr Graffito is tapping into other people’s pain. (If it was a thriller fans would be disappointed!) Bill (the horrible cleaner at the hospital) wrote the words for Dr Graffito under instruction. Dr Graffito is actually a surgeon who got self-made tattoos.   

There is also guilt for Suzana – she is still suffering the trauma of the abortion she had after her affair with the University lecturer. We had a discussion about the way she handled this circumstance. One member felt that Suzana behaved very badly towards the lecturer’s family. She is a very strong character, and impulsive and has a certain ‘steeliness’. Dr Graffito is like a pain in everybody echoing the deep tragedies of the main characters. It feels very real.

It is very hard for them both to lessen the guilt. Suzana only has one friend in Melbourne, Jelka, and Jovan has the psychologist David Dickens.  They both love and hate these friends at times. They tell these friends things that they don’t say to each other. Suzana and Jovan in bed talk about love for the eyes. Their love is also about hate at times and their interwined lives.

The ending is powerful and quickly executed --  A God of small knives. A devil of deep cuts’ .  (location 3384  99%) Jovan recognizes the surgeon from the hospital and the tattoos -- …’the Trojan Flea’.  ‘Her husband… As expressionless as a god remaking the world.’ (final sentence).

The question of religion is curious. Jovan prays every night but Suzana didn’t. Unfortunately it didn’t help him resolve anything but it was a habit.

The humour is subtle compared to the intensity of the novel. Jovan’s van and the continual problems he has with it as well as his commentary on Bill, his co-worker provide a small amount of lightness in the novel.

Somone said something about ‘Moral flossing’. I am not sure what they meant but it is a brilliant phrase.   Patrić is very deft at unfolding a story. 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Madelaine Dickie's Troppo

This month's book was a first for us, as it was a novel by someone close to us, the fiancée of the son of one of our group's founding members! How great is that, eh? Not only that, but Madelaine Dickie's debut novel, Troppo, won the City of Fremantle/TAG Hungerford award for an unpublished manuscript.

The story is set in southwest Sumatra, Indonesia. It starts a couple of months after the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004 and ends just after the tsunami hit Aceh on 26 December 2004. It concerns a young women, Penny, who had previously lived in Indonesia as a teen, but is returning to have "a break" from her boyfriend Josh who is 14 years older than she. Penny has lined up a job on a surfing resort run by expat Shane, but arrives early to have a holiday. That's the set up. The novel then explores the political and personal relationships that develop (or pre-exist) between the locals and the expat community, and within the expat community itself, in a tense situation where corruption and bullying is rife, and fundamentalist Islam is on the rise.

As we frequently do, we started by asking members for a quick summary of their responses to the book. Here is the gist:

  • The book raised lots of interesting issues about culture clashes but also the importance of Western visitors for the Indonesian economy. It was a good page turner.  (left on our Facebook Page by an absent member)
  • It has some lovely expressions and gets you in quickly. It's a well-crafted story that made you feel you were experiencing it. The ending came suddenly. The Islam aspect was interesting, as was how Australians are viewed by the Balinese.
  • It's sophisticated for a young novelist, and is interesting for the breadth of ideas covered, including the discussions about religion. It was good to see a story about Australians who don't only think about drinking beer. 
  • It brought back vivid memories for some of our members of their trips to Indonesia in the 1970s, but they noted that it doesn't depict the Indonesia they remembered (and it made some nostalgic). 
  • It effectively explores the issue of First World guilt experienced by tourists in countries where the inhabitants are comparatively poor.
  • It built up suspense well, and effectively presented youth culture.
  • It's an engrossing book. It captures her character's immersion in the landscape well. It also shows how Westerners can be unaware of menace, and thereby come unstuck. It also explores what it means to be a tourist, how tourists behave and it examines how we Australians relate to our neighbours. 
We spent quite a bit of time on reminiscences, including looking at a map to plot exactly where the novel is set (though the place itself is fictional). We talked about how Indonesia comprises many countries in one country, that it is (has been) dominated by the Javanese, but in fact encompasses several different religions and cultures.

We all liked Ibu Ayu who ran the tourist bungalow compound where Penny stays at the beginning of the novel. Ibu Ayu comes across as a somewhat grounded matriarch. And we thought the book also covered well the wide range of expats/tourists you find in places like this - the aggressive, the insensitive, the idealistic and the gentle. Several members loved the food descriptions, and want to try nasi campur!

We discussed corruption, particularly regarding the policemen. One member found Penny's attitude to  the supernatural too "credulous" while others found it believable in the context.

One member mentioned Dickie's strategy for handling a story set in a country with a different language: she sometimes translated the Indonesian words she used, and other times she let the context make it clear. We thought this worked most of the time, but a member noted that the glossary in the Reading Group notes on the publisher's website was useful.

Given the very specific time-setting of the novel and the motif of political unrest running through the novel, we spent a bit of time talking about the novel's political themes. In the interview included with the Reading Group notes (link above), Dickie responds to a question about the timing:

Troppo is set two years after the Bali bombings, a year after the bombing outside the JW Marriott Hotel, and two months after the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. This context is important for Troppo, as some of the themes explored are the rise of fundamental Islam and the coexistence of Islam and traditional beliefs. At the time of writing, as a student of journalism, I was also aware of the two dimensional depictions of Islam in the media, and wanted to create rounded characters and discussions based on some of the stickier topics I liked to discuss with my Muslim friends. Has the relationship changed? Of course, things are always in a state of flux. However, our news media is now less concerned with Jemaah Islamiyah, and more concerned with the rise of Islamic State, which no one had heard of ten years ago. So the shape of fundamental Islam has also changed.

We teased this out a little, believing that Indonesia has traditionally managed to counterbalance multiple religions, marring them with local beliefs and practices. When questioned by Penny, Ibu Ayu doesn't see Islam as a problem, believing her region manages the "mix". However, we saw Shane's resort operating in the colonial style. He doesn't try to work with the local people. Shane's resort could be "read" as a metaphor for a more systemic breakdown in the society.

We discussed some of the Reading Group questions, such as what does Australia think of Indonesia - and vice versa - then and now. This resulted in a discussion of language teaching in schools. We remembered that in the 1970s and 80s, Indonesian was the popular language at schools, but this moved on to Japanese in the 90s and then Chinese, aligning it seems to us with prevailing foreign policy.

A couple of the questions related to Penny. One asked whether her perception of herself is different to how others see her. One member questioned the question, suggesting that such a difference of perception would not be unusual, but we soldiered on. We decided that those in the Batu Batur community seemed to see her as risk-taking (and not always in the positive sense!) while boyfriend Josh saw her as directionless, without a plan. His assessment provided the impetus for her to make the decision she does at the end. Another question asked whether her character develops. In general we thought not a lot, though by the end she is more certain about who she is and what she wants from her life, which is to live "by choice, on a fault-line".

Finally, we all enjoyed the writing, and couldn't resist sharing some favourites:

The light in the bungalow shifts from a sun-kissed wood colour to glazed ceramic greens. Outside, a bouquet of fresh rain. (p. 149)
I take a sip of my coffee. Black flecks of vanilla dust the foam. I place it reverently back in its saucer. It's the best coffee I have ever tasted. (p. 169)
It's interesting to observe the way power animates a person, how it swells the chest, deepens the voice, hardens the handshake. (p. 174)
The night is young. The mozzie coil has only just begun its inward inch (p. 198)

All in all, it was a lively discussion. As usual, we didn't come to major conclusions, but we all agreed it was a great read. We shared many ideas about travel, discussed our relationship with Indonesia, and enjoyed reading the ideas and opinions of a young writer. We look forward to Dickie's next novel!