At the beginning of this English-language debut from Indonesian author Kurniawan, Dewi Ayu, who was once the most respected prostitute in the fictional coastal town of Halimunda, rises from her grave after being dead for two decades. She’s returned to pay a visit to her fourth daughter, Beauty, who is famously ugly. What follows is an unforgettable, all-encompassing epic of Indonesian history, magic, and murder, jumping back to Dewi Ayu’s birth before World War II, in the last days of Dutch rule, and continuing through the Japanese occupation and the mass killings following the attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party in the mid-1960s. Kurniawan centers his story on Dewi Ayu and her four daughters and their families. Readers witness Dewi Ayu’s imprisonment in the jungle during the war, a pig turning into a person, a young Communist named Comrade Kliwon engaging in guerrilla warfare, and a boy cheating in school by asking ghosts for help. Indeed, the combination of magic, lore, and pivotal events reverberating through generations will prompt readers to draw parallels between Kurniawan’s Halimunda and García Márquez’s Macondo. But Kurniawan’s characters are all destined for despair and sorrow, and the result is a darker and more challenging read than One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is much physical and sexual violence, but none of it feels gratuitous—every detail seems essential to depicting Indonesia’s tragic past. Upon finishing the book, the reader will have the sense of encountering not just the history of Indonesia but its soul and spirit. This is an astounding, momentous book. (Sept.)
From Publishers Weekly, 8 June 2015.