Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 4, 2011

Sustenance (2010), by Simone Lazaroo

As I wrote when I posted an excerpt from this novel as a Sensational Snippet, Sustenance ought to be compulsory reading for blithe travellers to holiday resorts in other cultures.

We’ve all seen them – they’re everywhere these days because tourism is the life blood of nearly every economy in the world.  Tourists tramping through places of worship as if they’re shopping centres; tourists proclaiming their ignorance of history and culture with their loud remarks and inappropriate dress; tourists gabbling about how friendly the locals are when they haven’t bothered so much as to learn to how say thanks in the local language and in fact they only ever meet locals being paid to be friendly.  I’ve seen tourists demanding bargains from traders so poor they can barely feed their families; I’ve met tourists angry about being pestered by beggars because they expect to be insulated from anything unpleasant, and I’ve heard tourists demanding to be provided with exactly what they have at home because dammit they’re paying to have a good time and if they want butt’r on their bread in a Venetian restaurant then some waiter had better get some from somewhere.   If there’s one characteristic that defines most tourists it’s the overwhelming sense of entitlement that we have.  (And yes, I say we, because I’ve been guilty of all these things myself from time to time even though I spend months reading up on the places I’m going to and always try to learn a bit of the language).

Sustenance is set in the Hotel Elsewhere on the Indonesian island of Bali, a holiday destination so popular with Australians and so good at insulating its tourists from the locals that Aussies of a certain type actually think it’s part of Australia.  Luxurious holiday resorts there are little different to those at Port Douglas, Cairns or those on the secluded islands of the Great Barrier Reef.  For the less well-heeled, Kuta has been so colonised by Aussies, that young people on a shoestring holiday feel right at home.  (And behave that way, much to the embarrassment of some of us.)

Perpetua, the central character in Sustenance, is alert to all the nuances of the culture of the hotel.  She is both a local and an outsider, for she is of mixed-race and although she has been at the hotel for many years, her origins are elsewhere.  She speaks Indonesian well, but only token Balinese; she has a western sensibility but a deep understanding of Balinese culture and its differences from the dominant Javanese culture.

These elements of her character are in constant flux in this novel which so cunningly exposes the ironies of modern tourism.  As an individual, Perpetua is, just like the guests, justifiably absorbed by her own painful memories and hopes for the future.   As a member of staff she is also incisively observant of the insensitivities of the hotel guests  and her solidarity is, consistent with Asian culture generally, with her group.  As readers, we learn the inner tumult of all the guests, Lazaroo skewering their characters with such ‘bite’ as to remind me of of Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday and Katherine Mansfield’s In a German Pension. But we learn nothing of the inner world of the Balinese staff.  It is hidden, opaque, denied us.

Perpetua is the cook, preparing dishes so lovingly rendered by Lazaroo’s dextrous pen that aromas waft off the page as you read!  For Perpetua, food is nourishment for the body and consolation for the soul, and she derives her sense of self from offering the guests dishes that sustain them in more ways than one.  She is alert to the irony that the local Balinese toiling in the picturesque fields beyond the hotel eat only at subsistence level but understand the harmony inherent in a dish prepared with integrity.  Subtlety, harmony, complexity and diversity characterise Perpetua’s cooking, as it also characterises the host nation in which the hotel is located.

But harmony in Indonesia is as vulnerable as food cooking on a stove.  Scorching tensions can boil over and erupt into disaster leaving more than a sour taste in the mouth.  Beyond the resentment of locals offended both by the crass insensitivity of tourists and by their exclusion from the economic benefits they bring to investors from elsewhere, there are also separatist movements most noticeable to Australians in Aceh and Papua, and then there is the festering issue of religious fundamentalism and its associated terrorism, most notably Jemaah Islamiyah.  Of these simmering tensions the guests are dimly aware only of the latter, because the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has ‘advised’ travellers to ‘reconsider’ travel in Indonesia ever since the 2002 Bali bombings in which 88 Australians died.  (This is the second highest level of Travel Advisory that DFAT issues, but they do not call them warnings which devalues their impact somewhat).

These hostilities are lurking off-stage Part 1, ‘sub-titled The Way to Elsewhere’ but the novel becomes a sleep-disrupting page-turner in Part 11, ominously called ‘Final Offerings’.  Perpetua’s cooking has soothed many a soul in the hotel, but when the guests are held hostage in a situation vaguely reminiscent of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Perpetua’s western impetus towards the individual is in conflict with her Asian focus on the group.  Possibilities for individual escape evaporate because the group must be protected.

This is a beautifully written novel, enjoyable and accessible to read but with a significant undercurrent.  It deserves a wider audience.

Angela Savage reviewed it on her blog and Vicki Sly read it for Suite 101.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Simone Lazaroo
Title: Sustenance
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Publishing), 2010
ISBN: 9781742580715
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP.

Fishpond Sustenance


  1. Oh, this one definitely appeals to me… God knows I’ve come across some terrible tourists in my time, and sadly, in recent years, they have tended to be loud-mouthed Aussies. I tend to keep my mouth closed whenever I hear them in my vicinity, lest people think I am associated with them! But I digress… out of interest is this her debut novel? Not heard of her before.


  2. Hi Kim:) No, it’s not her debut novel, she also wrote The Australian Fiance (2000) World Waiting To Be Made (2004) and The Travel Writer (2006) and she’s won the WA Premier’s Book Awards for fiction for all of them!


  3. Lisa, this sounds wonderful! I just added it to my wishlist. Your description of reminded me of the Audrey Tautao movie “Dirty Pretty Things”. The film contrasts the lives of the staff (many in the country and working illegally, without visas) and the guests. Are you familiar?


    • No, I don’t know that film – but I think this kind of setting is ideal for a film. And just imagine drooling over the food!


  4. […] read two novels by Simone Lazaroo: The Travel Writer (2006), and Sustenance (2010) but Lost River, four albums is a departure from her previous sensuous style.  Sustenance […]


  5. […] Simone Lazaroo, The World Waiting to be Made, see my reviews of Sustenance, The Travel Writer and Lost River, Four […]


  6. […] Orange Prize winner Bel Canto—based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis—and of Simone Lazaroo’s Sustenance which featured a group of tourists trapped in an Indonesian hotel by terrorists.  These characters […]


  7. And now I’ve put in a library request for this novel. Your work is done ;-)


    • Mission accomplished!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have read it now, and am in the process of writing a review. Perhaps I could just say how much I agree with what you had to say :-)


        • Including pining for some Indonesian food, eh?


  8. […] Simone Lazaroo, The World Waiting to be Made, see my reviews of Sustenance, The Travel Writer and Lost River, Four […]


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