Beauty is a Wound – Eka Kurniawan

Still on the holiday book-fest, this was the other one I picked up on the journey, alongside Fangirl. I was attracted by the blurb and the critics’ quotations on the cover – any author compared to the love child of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marques has to be worth reading, right?!

Ok, first impressions: this book is dark. It’s kind of a mash up of histori-political satire, folk and fairy tales, and Gothicism – and it is chock full of gratuitous violence, so please don’t read it if that will spoil it for you. It’s not generally graphic; the horrors are described in much the same way as Hans Christian Anderson telling of an ugly stepsister chopping off her own big toe, or the Grimm brothers relating the fate of a villain, placed into a nailed barrel and rolled down the hill – atrocities are baldly stated, rather than ghoulishly described in great detail. It nearly put me off, to be honest – between the violence and the seeming meandering nature of the narrative, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.

However, having said that, I am genuinely glad I persevered. The first sentence –

One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.

– grips you from the moment you start reading, and the writing itself continues in this skillful vein. Not only is the prose well-crafted, but the narrative itself is woven together like an epic of old, until the author brings you back to the start so you understand how you got there.

The thing I appreciated most was the fullness of the tale. You know how the best conversations – those ones which last for several hours and more than one bottle of wine – go on tangents? Like, one thread will remind you of another story, which in turn reminds you of another, which reminds you of another… Kurnaiwan does this, giving full time and attention to each player and each thread in his tale. I found it confusing at first – what did this story have to do with anything else? – but once I was about a third of the way through I was able to take a step back and catch a glimpse of the whole tapestry instead of just staring in confusion at a single thread. It’s truly masterful how each thread is woven together, and how the stories act as satire and a history lesson on Indonesia’s culture and turbulent past as well as captivating folk tales and legends.

I’m guessing whole essays could be written about this book, and I will have to read it again (and again) to truly get all I can out of it. It’s well worth a read – but only if you’re not (understandably) put off by the gruesome and violent nature of the story.

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