The novel moves backwards and forwards in time as it traverses the life of Harper following the downfall of Suharto in 1998. Harper was born to his Dutch mother, Anika, in an internment camp in Java, and his father is killed by the Japanese. Anika—who becomes an alcoholic — whisks him back to Holland when she is able, then emigrates to the United States and marries Michael, an African-American. As thrilled as we were to read a book so stunningly set in Indonesia by such an assured writer, we were completely transfixed by Harper’s childhood in California during the civil rights era, and his relationship with his step-grandparents. (And we were totally gutted by the tragedy that occurred here.)
Thanks to Harper’s looks — not white, not Indonesian, or one or the other, depending on where he is — he is sent to work in Indonesia during the 1965 killings, where his experiences will impact the rest of his life. That life ends up being 30 years behind a desk in the Netherlands, until he’s sent back as the financial crisis hits Southeast Asia in the late 1990s.
Harper meets Rita in Ubud, Bali, as he recuperates from a bit of a breakdown in Jakarta following the riots there. While their relationship is pivotal in a way to the plot, this is far from being a romance novel. It’s a nuanced look at race, identity and belonging, with a skilfully depicted Indonesia as the setting. It covers the morality of a world where the rich get richer and the poor remain poor over the decades. It’s about memory and forgiveness of the self and others:
“Nobody had one past. In 1965 he remembered 1950 in a certain way and now in 1998, he remembered 1965 differently from how it was and 1950 differently from how he had remembered in in 1965. It was like standing in a box of mirrors and turning to see your reflection multiplied back and forth at you in endless iterations — except, in his case, each reflection was slightly different.”
Indonesia and the crimes of 1965 (and 1998) are presented with the historical gravity they deserve, without descending into cliche, and with moral complexity. Doughty’s plot is measured and masterfully unfolds. We haven’t read depictions of these events in this way in fiction before (only in various non-fiction books such as In the Time of Madness); but please let us know if you have. (Obviously there is more in Indonesian, which we wish was translated.)
This is a literary thriller suited to those coming to Indonesia or those who have travelled here. And it's also for those who are simply intrigued by the moral complexities of history rendered at the individual level.
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