Photo: .

Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan
Buy online: Amazon | Book Depository

Beauty is a Wound, the debut novel by Eka Kurniawan, is a rollicking, colourful, wild ride through Indonesian history, seen mostly from the perspective of Dewi Ayu, the mixed-race granddaughter of Dutch colonialists, and her four daughters to various fathers.

Beauty is a Wound

In what feels like a quintessentially Indonesian (or at least, Javanese) beginning, the book opens with her mysteriously rising from the dead to return to the world of the living in May 1997, after 21 years in the ground.

The narrative leaps back to Dewi Ayu’s ordeal during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, and continues through to the fall of dictator Suharto, during which time she suffers at the hands of various men. The period from Indonesia’s founding through to modern times is indeed bloody, and the story certainly reflects this, with its own quirks and takes; as Kurniawan told the New Yorker, “you’re reading ‘a joke about history’.”

This is an Indonesian slant on magical realism — or a bawdy wayang show, written down as literature. It’s a rip-roaring tear through the country’s modern history, interspersed with vivid and folkloric flights of fancy as well as incredibly brutal violence (****-eating, bestiality, incest — it has it all, really).

Kurniawan depicts violence again women as an integral part of the general brutality that often defined the period. But it’s hard to buy the line that the book is a critique of violence against women in Indonesia when it seems to gleefully rejoice so much in depicting it, with all the nuance of sledgehammer. Of course, the narrative is not supposed to be believable, but when a vagrant woman is gang-raped (for days) and then looks at her rescuer with “the shy demeanour of a young virgin” and seduces him, it’s kind of, well, irritating.

Originally published in Indonesian in 2002, the version translated into English was published in 2015 and received rave reviews, including making the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize longlist (not the short, however). Read it for Kurniawan’s crazy, imaginative, fictional take on Indonesian history; just don’t make it the only thing you read about it.

Buy online: Amazon | Book Depository



More titles

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days BURMESE DAYS By George Orwell If you last read Orwell back in high school and vaguely remember struggling through the political implications of assigned texts Animal Farm or 1984, you might be reluctant to pick up Burmese Days. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Finding George Orwell FINDING GEORGE ORWELL By Emma Larkin Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma is a fascinating account of her year in Burma (Myanmar) tracking down the places George Orwell served his time as a British police officer when the country was ruled from Delhi as part of British India. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Glass Palace THE GLASS PALACE By Amitav Ghosh Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace is a classic epic novel, spanning generations and countries as it casts a brilliant light on Burmese, Indian and Malayan history, with Burma its focal point. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Trouser People THE TROUSER PEOPLE By Andrew Marshall This is our go-to recommended read for those heading to Burma (Myanmar). ... more
Amazon
Book Depository

Cambodia

Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom DESTINATION CAMBODIA: ADVENTURES IN THE KINGDOM By Walter Mason Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom is a gentle, intimate look at Cambodia today. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Dogs at the Perimeter DOGS AT THE PERIMETER By Madeleine Thien Dogs at the Perimeter, by Canadian author Madeleine Thien, traverses the life of Janie, a medical researcher who settled in Canada as a child after fleeing the horror of the Cambodian genocide. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Holiday in Cambodia HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA By Laura Jean McKay While perhaps popularised by the Dead Kennedys, Holiday in Cambodia is also a great book well worth a read. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Hunters in the Dark HUNTERS IN THE DARK By Lawrence Osborne Cambodian-set Hunters in the Dark, by Lawrence Osborne, received rave reviews when it was published in 2016. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
King Norodom's Head KING NORODOM'S HEAD By Steven W. Boswell If you have any affection for the growing city of Phnom Penh — and nostalgia for its disappearing past — you’ll love King Norodom’s Head: Phnom Penh Sights Beyond the Guidebooks. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
River of Time RIVER OF TIME By Jon Swain River of Time is British reporter Jon Swain’s memoir of his time in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s — the titular river refers to Indochina’s Mekong. ... more
Amazon
The Gate THE GATE By Francoise Bizot At once horrifying and intelligent, The Gate is an extraordinary personal account of the workings of the Khmer Rouge. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository

Indonesia

A Brief History of Indonesia. Sultans, spices and tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia's Largest Nation A BRIEF HISTORY OF INDONESIA. SULTANS, SPICES AND TSUNAMIS: THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF SOUTHEAST ASIA'S LARGEST NATION By Tim Hannigan In his introduction to A Brief History of Indonesia, Tim Hannigan says that he aimed to write in the pages ahead the book he was looking for years ago when he first came to Indonesia but failed to find: an accessible history to explain something of the vast and diverse country to new visitors. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
A House in Bali A HOUSE IN BALI By Colin McPhee Published in 1947, A House in Bali by Colin McPhee remains today a relevant and engaging book for readers looking to learn about the intricacies and history of Balinese culture generally, and music specifically. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Black Water BLACK WATER By Louise Doughty Black Water by Louise Doughty is a beautiful novel tracing the life of "John Harper", a name chosen by the son of an Indonesian-Dutch couple when he becomes an “operative” for the Amsterdam-based Institute. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
In the Time of Madness IN THE TIME OF MADNESS By Richard Lloyd Parry In the Time of Madness is arguably the most compelling book written about Indonesia in the late 20th century. British correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry brings the roiling turmoil of the era to life with his snappy but sensitive reportage. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Indonesia Etc. INDONESIA ETC. By Elizabeth Pisani If you’re heading to Indonesia, or seeking to get even a slight understanding of this complex archipelago nation, Elizabeth Pisani’s beautiful Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation is essential reading. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Map of the Invisible World MAP OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD By Tash Aw Map of the Invisible World is at heart the story of two Indonesian brothers separated when they are adopted out by different families from an orphanage. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Ring of Fire RING OF FIRE By Lawrence Blair Looking for some inspiration to get off the map in Indonesia? Lawrence Blair will fill your bucket list with incredible places to go. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Malay Archipelago THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO By Alfred Russel Wallace They just don’t make them like they used to. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Year of Living Dangerously THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY By Christopher J. Koch Yes, the shadow puppet as a metaphor for Indonesia’s (or at least Java’s) political system has been done to death, but Christopher J. Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously is perhaps the book that polishes it off best, even if unironically. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
This Earth of Mankind THIS EARTH OF MANKIND By Pramoedya Ananta Toer This Earth of Mankind is the first of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet series. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Under the Volcano UNDER THE VOLCANO By Cameron Forbes Under the Volcano by Cameron Forbes is one of the better easy-reading histories and modern reportage books on Bali. ... more
Book Depository

Laos

Afterland: Poems AFTERLAND: POEMS By Mai Der Vang You might not immediately consider that the American War in Laos and the Hmong refugee experience form natural subjects for poems. But Afterland by Mai Der Vang is an extraordinary collection of powerful poems that excavate the humanity of those swept up in the war and the subsequent exodus of some 300,000 Hmong refugees to the United States. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Hot Sour Salty Sweet HOT SOUR SALTY SWEET By Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid Hot Sour Salty Sweet combines cookbook with travelogue and when it was published in 2000, it became an instant classic, the definitive introduction to foods of Southeast Asia, the go-to for recipes. ... more
Amazon
I Shot the Buddha (A Dr Siri Paiboun Mystery) I SHOT THE BUDDHA (A DR SIRI PAIBOUN MYSTERY) By Colin Cotterill I Shot the Buddha is number 11 in Colin Cotterill’s delightful Laos-set Dr Siri Paiboun mystery series, and it’s out next month in paperback. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Stalking The Elephant Kings STALKING THE ELEPHANT KINGS By Christopher Kremmer While Stalking the Elephant Kings was published nearly 20 years ago, it remains a fascinating and fun general introduction to Laos — and sadly there aren’t too many of those. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Coroner's Lunch: A Dr Siri Murder Mystery THE CORONER'S LUNCH: A DR SIRI MURDER MYSTERY By Colin Cotterill The Coroner’s Lunch is an intelligently fun and readable murder mystery set in Laos. This is the first book we’ve read by prolific author Colin Cotterill, and it won’t be the last. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN By Anne Fadiman The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman is a multi-layered, stunning and heartbreaking book about the lives of a Hmong refugee family from Laos in Merced, California. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository

Malaysia

My Life As a Fake MY LIFE AS A FAKE By Peter Carey Published in 2004 and set mostly in Kuala Lumpur in 1972, My Life As a Fake, by Australian Booker-prize winning author Peter Carey, is at its heart the tale of an Australian literary hoax and its reverberations into the present. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Garden of Evening Mists THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS By Tan Twan Eng This haunting, quiet novel peels back life in Malaya and Malaysia in a beautiful, serious way. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Harmony Silk Factory THE HARMONY SILK FACTORY By Tash Aw The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw recounts the life of a successful Chinese textile merchant in Malaya during the British colonial years, leading up to the Japanese occupation. But nothing is as straightforward as it first seems. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository

Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians CRAZY RICH ASIANS By Kevin Kwan Crazy Rich Asians is a rollicking read set in the lives of Singapore’s ultra-rich. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
From Third World to First FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST By Lee Kuan Yew If you’re interested in Singapore and want to know more, why not go straight to, pretty much, the source? ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
If I Could Tell You IF I COULD TELL YOU By Jing-Jing Lee Set in and around soon-to-be-demolished Block 204 in Singapore, If I Could Tell You, by Jing-Jing Lee, is a series of vignettes of ordinary people going about their everyday lives in the city state. ... more
Book Depository
In Transit: An Anthology IN TRANSIT: AN ANTHOLOGY By Zhang Ruihe and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow In Transit: An Anthology, is a collection of short stories, essays and poetry using Singapore’s Changi airport as either their focus or launchpad. ... more
It Never Rains on National Day IT NEVER RAINS ON NATIONAL DAY By Jeremy Tiang Jeremy Tiang’s short story collection It Never Rains on National Day is a refreshing take on Singapore. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Sarong Party Girls SARONG PARTY GIRLS By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan A beach read with a difference, Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is light and breezy but at its core is a subversive message about Singaporean society and the place women have in it. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Singapore Noir SINGAPORE NOIR By Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan Singapore Noir is a collection of 14 moody, totally enthralling short stories edited by Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan, each set in a recognisable neighbourhood in the titular city-state. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository

Thailand

A Land on Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom A LAND ON FIRE: THE ENVIRONMENTAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE SOUTHEAST ASIAN BOOM By James Fahn James Fahn’s A Land on Fire was first published more than a decade ago, but remains an important and highly readable book that lays the groundwork for anyone interested in understanding the massive environmental challenges that continue to face Thailand today. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Bangkok Found BANGKOK FOUND By Alex Kerr Bangkok Found by Alex Kerr pierces deeply into the art, culture and people of Thailand in a book that reads more like an inspiring travel narrative than a stuffy research project. Countless cultural intricacies will surface if you read this before a trip to Bangkok. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind MAI PEN RAI MEANS NEVER MIND By Carol Hollinger Memoirs of expatriates aren’t our favourite genre when it comes to Southeast Asian reading, but Carol Hollinger’s Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind is the best of its kind to come out of Thailand. ... more
Amazon
Many Lives MANY LIVES By M.R Kukrit Pramoj The late M.R Kukrit Pramoj was a celebrated statesman, journalist, classical dancer, writer and “one of the most imposing and impressive personalities of modern Thai history”, according to scholar and translator, Meredith Borthwick. ... more
Amazon
Sightseeing SIGHTSEEING By Rattawut Lapcharoensap I love reading about a place that I am travelling through, and all-the-better if the book makes me squirm with horrible recognition: ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Tales of Old Bangkok: Rich Stories from the Land of the White Elephant TALES OF OLD BANGKOK: RICH STORIES FROM THE LAND OF THE WHITE ELEPHANT By Chris Burslem Tales of Old Bangkok: Rich Stories from the Land of the White Elephant is a collection of colourful snippets from various written sources about Bangkok, mostly from the 1800s through to the 1960s. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Beach THE BEACH By Alex Garland Set to be re-released by Penguin on July 7 to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of its publishing, The Beach by Alex Garland was hailed as being the quintessential Southeast Asian backpacking novel. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Narrow Road to the Deep North THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH By Richard Flanagan The 2014 Man Booker winner is a deep, dark and important read. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Sad Part Was THE SAD PART WAS By Prabda Yoon Prabda Yoon won the prestigious SEA Write Award for Kwam Na Ja Pen (Probability) in 2002, but it’s only now that these stories have been translated into English for The Sad Part Was. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Windup Girl THE WINDUP GIRL By Paolo Bacigalupi Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction—it’s certainly not a genre we usually pick up—if you’re interested in Thailand and in particular the craziness of Bangkok and where it might be headed as we hurtle into the decades ahead, The Windup Girl makes for a good dystopian read. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture VERY THAI: EVERYDAY POPULAR CULTURE By Philip Cornwel-Smith It’s more than a decade old, but 2005-published Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwel-Smith remains a fun, offbeat examination of ordinary Thai lifestyles and culture. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository

Vietnam

Bright Shining Lie BRIGHT SHINING LIE By Neil Sheehan This huge and highly awarded book is crucial reading for anyone with an interest not just in the Vietnam War, but Vietnam today, as it recovers from the aftermath of that tragedy (and also, war in general). Good news: the lengthy book is an utterly compelling and stunning read. ... more
Amazon
Destination Saigon DESTINATION SAIGON By Walter Mason Destination Saigon is part memoir, part reportage, a collection of intimate and often very funny stories by Walter Mason about his exploration of spirituality across Buddhist-majority Vietnam. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Dragon Apparent DRAGON APPARENT By Norman Lewis Dragon Apparent, first published in 1951, is Norman Lewis' account of his travels across French-controlled Indochina in the decades leading up to the American War. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table EATING VIET NAM: DISPATCHES FROM A BLUE PLASTIC TABLE By Graham Holliday Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table is a memoir of avid street-food-diner-turned-blogger Graham Holliday. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars EAVES OF HEAVEN: A LIFE IN THREE WARS By Andrew X. Pham Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars is the extraordinary part-life story of author Andrew X. Pham’s Vietnamese father, Thong Van Pham. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Fishing for Tigers FISHING FOR TIGERS By Emily Maguire Fishing for Tigers by Australian author Emily Maguire is the tale of an American woman, Mischa, who moves to Hanoi after leaving an abusive relationship back home and remakes her life, working as an editor. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Quiet American THE QUIET AMERICAN By Graham Greene The Quiet American by Graham Greene is a classic not just about Vietnam — it portrays the nation at a crucial and intriguing juncture in its history — but about American foreign policy, and folly, as well. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Refugees THE REFUGEES By Viet Thanh Nguyen From the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, comes this collection of gently sad and poignant stories about Vietnamese refugees and their lives in the United States. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Sorrow of War THE SORROW OF WAR By Bao Ninh Hard-hitting, deeply earnest and unabashedly brutal, Bao Ninh’s 1994-published The Sorrow of War is a North Vietnamese war classic that remains essential reading for visitors to Vietnam today. Even if you don’t have a particular interest in the war years, it seems almost disrespectful to not read it if you are travelling to Vietnam. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Sympathizer THE SYMPATHIZER By Viet Thanh Nguyen Another American War in Vietnam novel? Really? We admit to thinking this on hearing about The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, but given it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction earlier this year (and being suckers for literary prizes), we had to give it a read. And: wow. What a refreshing, shocking, beautiful, thought-provoking read. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon TWO CITIES: HANOI AND SAIGON By Neil Sheehan Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon is a slim, elegant book by Neil Sheehan about Vietnam in 1989. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
When the War Was Over WHEN THE WAR WAS OVER By Elizabeth Becker When the War Was Over by Elizabeth Becker is one of the most compelling, unputdown-able books on the modern history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository

General

Asian Godfathers ASIAN GODFATHERS By Joe Studwell The underpinnings of Southeast Asia’s various economies—and by extension, societies—are superbly explained by Joe Studwell in this comprehensive look at the tycoon families of Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE By William Finnegan It’s not focused on Southeast Asia — Indonesia gets the briefest of mentions — but if you’re a surfer (as so many travellers to this region are), you love a surfer (ditto), or you’re just intrigued by the culture (double ditto), Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life is for you. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia BLOOD AND SILK: POWER AND CONFLICT IN MODERN SOUTHEAST ASIA By Michael Vatikiotis Blood and Silk is an erudite romp through Southeast Asia’s modern political and economic history in the hands of experienced regional hand Michael Vatikiotis. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues MY LIFE WITH BOB: FLAWED HEROINE KEEPS BOOK OF BOOKS, PLOT ENSUES By Pamela Paul Pamela Paul has kept a Book of Books (Bob) listing all the books she has read, or attempted to read, for 28 years. My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, is Paul’s memoir of her life as a reader. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Art of Travel THE ART OF TRAVEL By Alain de Botton Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel is a wonderfully wise and reassuring book. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Glamour of Strangeness THE GLAMOUR OF STRANGENESS By Jamie James Erudite, colourful and packed with intriguing anecdotes, Jamie James’ Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic is a romp through a bygone era, studying the lives of six artists who left their homelands to pursue creativity elsewhere. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository
The Signature of All Things THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS By Elizabeth Gilbert Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love wasn't our cup of tea, but The Signature of All Things is another beast entirely. ... more
Amazon
Book Depository

Like what you see? Then you’ll love our newsletter

The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.