“Write what you know” is the advice commonly given to writers, and this is exactly what Madelaine Dickie has done in her debut novel, Troppo, which won the City of Fremantle TAG Hungerford Award. For readers, on the other hand, the opposite could be true, as in “read what you don’t know.” This is certainly what I’ve done by reading Dickie’s novel because I’ve barely travelled in southeast Asia, where the novel is set, and all I know about that risky business of surfing, which frames the novel, comes from Tim Winton’s Breath (my review).
So, where to start? Well, to begin with, it’s a while since I’ve read what I might call a “youth culture” novel. I’ve read novels by young authors, such as Hannah Kent’s Burial rites (my review), Brooke Davis’ Lost & found (my review) and Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air (my review), but these novels have different drivers. One is historical fiction, one was inspired by grief over a mother’s death, and the other explores indigenous identity issues. The closest to Troppo that I can recollect reading is Andrew O’Connor’s The Australian/Vogel Award-winning Tuvalu, about a young Australian teaching English in Japan, but I read that long before blogging.
I say all this to give Troppo a context – a sort of sub-genre, if you will – of young writers writing about a young person’s experience of the world, an experience that is post-coming-of-age but encompasses a degree of uncertainty about one’s place. I don’t intend this to mean, though, that the novel is autobiographical. While it obviously draws on Dickie’s knowledge of southeast Asia and surfing, for example, I wouldn’t presume to say protagonist Penny is she. Indeed, in an interview on the publisher’s website, Dickie says that:
Some of the anecdotes are almost true, certainly stemming from my own experiences as a traveller and surfer … The texture of Troppo is also very true, the intoxicating smell of kretek cigarettes, the nights bleary on Bintang beer, and the way the call to prayer from the mosques drift down through mountain valleys.
Further, “the characters are entirely fictional”, she says, as is the setting, Batu Batur.
But now, preamble done, let’s get to the book. Set in southwest coastal Sumatra, 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. Penny, around 22 years old, had lived in Indonesia as a teen, but is returning to have “a break” from her significantly older boyfriend Josh. She 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 personal and political 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, threatening a culture that has traditionally accommodated different values and beliefs.
Troppo is a good read that gets you in quickly. Its fresh, lively but also reflective, first-person voice is engaging, and the various supporting characters are well-drawn. They include Ibu Ayu, the manager of the tourist bungalows where Penny stays in the beginning; young Cahyati, her niece; Penny’s soon-to-be-boss, Shane; and the “hot” but somewhat mysterious expat Matt. We soon sense mystery, with the locals not liking Shane, and the expats suggesting he won’t be around much longer. There’s a thriller element to the novel, but it’s not “just” thriller.
The novel’s over-riding concern is Penny’s uncertainty about her life. She’s not sure, exactly, why she’s fled Josh (except that his routine stultifies her), or why she’s “always jerked along by whim and the conviction there’s something better just ahead”. And yet, we readers know why, just as Belle in Disney’s (original and recently remade) Beauty and the Beast does!
I want much more than this provincial life,
I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.
(lyrics by Howard Ashman)
It’s not our culture (Matt)
In addition to the personal, however, the novel also explores social and political themes. One concerns tourists and cultural differences, expats and First World guilt. Penny sees “men whose bodies are halved over new rice” and “old women buckled under bundles of sticks” while she and friends are “off to surf, off to play and play and play, for months if we want.” It’s two-edged of course: the tourists bring money but their lives can inspire resentment.
Another theme concerns changing politics in Indonesia. When asked in the interview (linked above) about the novel’s timing, Dickie responded that:
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. … 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.
This theme pervades the novel through a growing sense of menace, not only against the corrupt expat, Shane, but against the “bule” (foreigner) in general. Moreover, Marika, a young New Zealander who runs an internet cafe, tells Penny that “the vibe has changed”, Matt tells her “there are bigger issues at play”, and locals in a bar tell her of imams “only wanting mosques, not churches”. Dickie handles this well. Suspense builds slowly – in fits and starts – and the plotting is sure. The crisis, when it comes, is swift but believable because the groundwork has been done.
Overall, in fact, Dickie proves to be a skilled writer. The novel feels tight and honed. Sometimes first-time novelists can overdo imagery, but Dickie keeps it under control, mixing up evocative descriptions with dialogue and action. It’s the lovely little descriptions that pop out of nowhere which delight the most, like this of a middle-aged expat’s hands being “like sea-creatures that have been left out on the sand. Dried out and peppered with sunspots”. Or this, “The night is young. The mozzie coil has only just begun its inward inch.”
Dickie also handles well that challenge of writing a story about a place whose language is different from her own. Her strategy is to sometimes translate Indonesian words and phrases, but other times to let the context make it clear. This can be an effective approach, and Dickie makes it work, using enough local language to convey place, but not enough to stall our reading.
Partway through the book, Penny says that “Risk always makes things sharper, throws into contrast the highs and lows, gives clarity”. Troppo, in the end, is about this. Yes, it comments on tourist and expat life, and yes, it exposes the beginnings of a dark political underbelly in the region, but the main point, really, is the personal. Penny recognises by the end that she is “living, by choice, on a fault line”. She finds living in “extreme places, among extreme people”, “intoxicating”. The challenge, I’d say, is how to live such a life authentically and respectfully. I’d love to see Dickie explore this theme further.
Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2016
DISCLOSURE: I have not met Madelaine Dickie, but her fiancé is the son of one of the founding members of my bookgroup (not to mention of my now long-past playgroup and babysitting groups).