I was surprised by the cover art for this book. Over the Water is a novel exploring the uneasy experience of an expat teacher in Bandung but this cover design by Peter Lo with images by Hengki Koentjoro doesn’t suggest Indonesia at all.
What it does convey is the sense of floundering experienced by the central character, Joe. Following the example of his brother before him in more ways than one, twenty-four year old Joe comes to Bandung to teach English and is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Java’s third city. This is not the Indonesia that most Australians know from lazy holidays in Bali, this is a bustling city of nearly 9 million people, densely populated and subject to all the usual social and infrastructure problems of rapid, chaotic over-development. As Lane shows, the rich live cheek by jowl with the poor, and the poverty can be extremely confronting, especially when the beggars are physically disabled in ways never seen in places with adequate medical care.
But Joe has to adjust to much more than that. Mau ke mana? he is asked by complete strangers everywhere he goes: it means where are you going? and it’s the standard friendly Indonesian greeting, equivalent to the Australian nod accompanying G’day as you pass someone familiar. But from my own experience studying in Yogyakarta it can feel intrusive, and it can be hard to make a noncommittal but friendly-enough reply that doesn’t result in ongoing conversation you don’t particularly want to have with a complete stranger. For Joe, it adds to his confusion when he answers the question literally, and is warned hati-hati. He does need to take care, and there may be danger ahead, but he has no idea what it might be or how to avoid it.
The expats at the school at which Joe works are mostly shut away from anything Indonesian and know nothing about the culture says Lisa, with whom he takes a room. Seduced by the ‘magic of Indonesia’ she claims to have immersed herself in the culture, but has no idea how patronising she is:
‘I’ve lived in many places,’ she said, undoing her ponytail, prising open the second bottle of Bintang. ‘But Java is the only place I feel I can’t leave. I should leave, my stomach is basically ruined. I’ve lived on sweet potatoes for the last three months and I still can’t stop the dysentery – and I’ve got some kind of liver fluke – but I can’t leave. I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this. Something about this place keeps me, there’s something magical about it. It doesn’t matter if my body’s sick, I believe that’s not the most important thing. This place can heal me in other ways, more important ways. The healing of the body follows the healing of the spirit, right? Yes, that’s why I’m here, to be healed. It’s the people. They’re so friendly, so warm, so giving. They’re unique. Like my boys – Clive, Budi, Adi. They’re naïve, really, unspoilt. They’re childlike. You’ll find most of the Indos are like children. (p. 13)
There are some characterisation lapses into caricature, and this is especially tiresome with the teacher Georgie. Every time she makes an appearance she litters her utterances with the filler ‘m’laddie’ which (I suppose) may conceivably be authentic, but it makes her sound like a hockey mistress from those British boarding school stories of the 1950s:
‘Well, look sharp, m’laddie, and smile please, no shirking now. We thought you’d deserted us, let the side down. You don’t know what you’ve let yourself in for working at this school, Mr Joe, that’s all I can say.’ (p. 16)
Between Lisa’s soppy spiritualism and Georgie’s imperviousness to the culture in which she finds herself, Joe flounders about, trying to be respectful to Indonesian culture while not knowing how to deal with its superstitions, a religion he doesn’t understand and the mores that surround sexual relationships.
Tom, an unwholesome-looking Englishman at the school, warns Joe that the small expat community tends to latch onto newcomers and that he should set boundaries, but it doesn’t take long before Joe is enmeshed in relationships with various women who make demands on him that he’s not ready for emotionally. He is discomfited by Lisa, whose Javanese ‘boys’ turn out to be her harem; compromised by Danu, who expects him to save her from an arranged marriage; and baffled by the reclusive Babette, who lives in a ruined colonial mansion reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s. The fragility of Joe’s own identity in what seems to him to be moral chaos is complicated by the shadowy figure of his brother, a kind of Pinkerton figure, a symbolism reinforced by references to butterflies.
Over the Water is a cautionary tale for would-be expats!
Author: William Lane
Title: Over the Water
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge