Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2019

Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie

The TAG Hungerford award has a good record for recognising talented Australian authors.  Set up by the City of Fremantle in WA to discover authors as yet unpublished, it consists of a cash prize and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.  Although I haven’t read the prize-winning books, I’ve read other books by these recipients of the award, including:

I’ve reviewed three winners of the award on the blog

and I’ve also read three of the novels shortlisted for the 2014 award picked up and published by other publishers — 2014 must have been a difficult year to choose the winner because these three are very fine novels: Seeing the Elephant, by Portland Jones;  Bloodlines, by Nicole Sinclair and The Sisters’ Song, by Louise Allan

The winner of that hotly contested 2014 award was Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie, published in 2016 by Fremantle Press.

Troppo is going to be on the 2020 reading list for the Indonesian book group I belong to, and it’s a good choice for discussion because it’s the story of a young Australian woman who goes to work in Sumatra, offering the perspective of an Australian who is fluent in Indonesian and knows the country quite well.  Like Simone Lazaroo (who won the award in 1993), Dickie writes as an outsider with some inside experience of Indonesia.  Most of the people in our group have a great deal of inside experience of Indonesia, so I’m looking forward to hearing what they think of the novel.

Penny, the central character and narrator of the story, is her own worst enemy.  The book begins with an alarming incident where she hears first-hand from a young woman who had worked for her future boss, Shane, but she decides to ignore those warning signs.  Penny is a keen surfer, telling herself that she’s in Sumatra to manage a coastal resort for a few months so that she can surf in her time off, but really, she’s running away.  She’s evading the problems she is having in her Australian relationship with a man called Josh.  Some years older than her, he is everything she is not: prudent, sensible, and comfortable with routines.  He’s career-minded, and settled-down contentedly in Perth.  But Penny, perhaps because of her disrupted youth which included time out with her father on Bali for a year, likes to party, to drift, and to have an adventurous lifestyle.  Reckless and naïve, Penny is warned off working for Shane by both expats and the locals with whom she is staying, but she ignores the weight of all this hostility and takes up her job at the resort.  (His offer of a huge bonus if she lasts for six months helps her to make up her mind!)

Troppo shows this young woman experiencing a conflict of values.  The novel is set in November 2004, just after the Bali and Denpasar bombings, and just before the Boxing Day tsunami.  In contrast to her free-and-easy year on Bali, she finds the oppressive influence of strict Islamism has spread to the remote village of Batu Batur, and it makes her feel uneasy.  She wants to respect Indonesian customs and culture, and she disapproves of young women flouting the cultural mores with scanty clothing, but she’s used to Western freedoms, and feels resentful of restrictions placed on women because of their gender.

Penny is not a blithe tourist with a romanticised perspective: she observes the back-breaking labour in the rice paddies and feels uncomfortable about her own privileged position.  At the same time, while she knows that she and Westerners like her are regarded as rich by virtue of their capacity to travel, to holiday, and to spend freely in the Indonesian economy, she has finite resources when it comes to returning to Australia.  At home she is certainly not rich, and her erratic work history in the unqualified hospitality sector makes her financial future rather precarious.  But her feelings of guilt lead to impulsive generosity — which of course reinforces local opinion that she has money to burn…

Considering herself well-acquainted with the domestic politics of commercial development in Indonesia, Penny thinks that the hostility to Shane is because of his impact on village life.  But she is inevitably compromised.  Her job involves working in a resort that supplants the local culture with its lavish facilities.  Still, she can see that not only have the local fisherman had their livelihood disrupted by restrictions imposed by Shane, but also that resort development doesn’t benefit the locals if they’re not employed there.  She is aware that most of the thriving businesses on Bali are owned by Australians, not by the Balinese.  And Shane is a typical example of someone who’d rather employ Westerners, called bules (i.e. bullies) in the novel.  Shane would much rather have a barmaid who drinks herself, to serve booze to his customers.

(This reminds me of an ‘guest speaker’ who addressed my class when I was learning Indonesian at Gadjah Mada University.  He was a (Caucasian) representative of one of the major global hotels in Yogyakarta, and he was there to offer employment to any of us who wanted to work in his hotel.  He explained that he needed bilingual staff who understood diner expectations in a fine dining restaurant, and it was easy to deduce the inference.  I thought this was interesting because we were all there on scholarships paid for by the Victorian government to learn Indonesian so that we could teach it in government schools, and yet he was invited there to poach us! This might have been my one-and-only experience of korupsi…)

Corruption, however, is a given in this novel.  Shane is bribing the local police to ignore the way he flouts the law, and the local Indonesians in their desperation decide to deliver some very rough justice using ‘black magic’.  The escalation from hostility to vengeance is what drives the narrative tension and gives the novel its shocking conclusion.

I liked the sophisticated way that Dickie depicted her bilingual character in this novel.  Sometimes she uses an Indonesian word or phrase, and translates it as part of the same sentence, and at other times the meaning is obvious from context.  But the novel also shows Penny being excluded from conversations because the local Indonesians speak Bahasa Lampung, spoken in Southern Sumatra alongside the official language of Bahasa Indonesia.  This technique is a way of showing that Penny remains an outsider in this community, and is not trusted, even by people who like her.

Sue from Whispering Gums reviewed Troppo too.

PS Dickie has just released a new novel: it’s called red Can Origami and I’ll be reading it soon. For more details, see here.

Author: Madelaine Dickie
Title: Troppo
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2016, 264pp
ISBN: 9781925163803
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from Fishpond: Troppo and direct from Fremantle Press


Responses

  1. I’m glad you found a reason to read this book, Lisa, and that you enjoyed it, particularly given your knowledge of and interest in Indonesia.

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    • It’s so hard to get to all the books I want to read…
      I’m still bothered by an author’s recent comment that she thought I hadn’t liked her book because there was no review of it. This was an author whose books I love, whose every new release I’ve read, and I’ve sought out her backlist and read most of that too. Her book was on my TBR because I always try to support my favourite authors by buying their books. But the book sat there for about six months while I read other things, and I wasn’t too bothered by that because it had been reviewed widely and positively elsewhere. (Like Favel Parrett’s new one, which I can see waving hopefully at me from the TBROZ shelf.) And yet she was wondering whether I liked it or not. (Which of course I did!!)
      This comment still troubles me. I’m sure she didn’t mean to put pressure on me, but I am just one person running this show, reading and reviewing 200+ books a year, and still, there are books I really want to read on my TBR…
      I want to support debut authors and small publishers who don’t get much publicity elsewhere, but I also want to read the more established ones because I like their work. It’s so hard!

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      • It just shows how sensitive so many authors, understandably, are doesn’t it. I think you read SO much they all expect so much!!! I’m sure the author understood when you explained, but I understand how you must have felt. We are sensitive too!

        I on the other hand set up no such expectations, but I do know some authors wait patiently for feedback, particularly those who get little or no mainstream reviews.

        BTW I haven’t read any Parrett yet, which shows how hopeless I am, but, woo hoo, my reading group has scheduled her latest for next year!

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  2. I think there’s more pressure on us now because print reviewing has collapsed. Look at The Oz Review this weekend: page 21 is a review about the British public school system; and GW’s review of a work of international fiction. Page 22 has Louise Swinn’s review of Melissa Ashley’s new one and a review of a true crime story by an SMH journo. Page 23 is has two columns on Mary Costello’s River Capture, and a column on John Clanchy’s In Whom We Trust (another one on my TBR). Page 24 is a full page review of Australian NF: Addressing Modern Slavery. So of four pages in total, Australian fiction gets two reviews, Melissa Ashley’s and John Clancy’s and I’m sure they know they are lucky to get it.
    The Guardian this week has two articles about Australian authors, Keneally and Tsolkias, but book reviews of Australian works? I can’t find any. I can’t find any at The Conversation either.
    And while I don’t agree with everything Alison Croggon has to say about the demise of the arts critic, she’s right about a lot of it, see
    https://theconversation.com/alison-croggon-and-the-arts-critic-as-an-endangered-species-126600

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    • Yes, that’s true, and the small publishers in particular struggle to get their books reviewed. Like you, I know that they appreciate it when we do.

      Looking at our CT Panorama today: four pages devoted to Books. A large review of Garner’s diaries, a smaller one of Perlman’s latest, a large one of an American non-fiction book, a large one of an Australian noel by Katherine Johnson, and a smaller one of an Australian fantasy novel by Kaaron Warren (a local, multi-award-winning author.) So good Australian content this week – four out of five reviews. So far the new owners of The Canberra Times are doing a decent job of supporting local reviewing again.

      Thanks for the link to The Conversation article. I hadn’t caught that one – I do support them each year, but I don’t click on every email that comes.

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      • Well done to the Canberra Times… the Katherine Johnson one would be Paris Savages, that is an exceptional book and I have high hopes for it in awards shortlists.
        But, my word, that is a dour review of Maybe The Horse Will Talk!

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  3. […] Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie […]

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  4. […] Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie […]

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  5. […] Dickie is the West Australian author of the award-winning Troppo, which I read last year. Red Can Origami is her second novel, set closer to home in the fictional Kimberley town of Gubinge […]

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  6. […] is the same issue explored in Marianne Dickie’s fiction: in Troppo, (2016) the Indonesian villagers were hostile to the entrepreneurial interlopers who hired […]

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  7. […] Act by Libby Angel (Text Publishing) Troppo by Madelaine Dickie (Fremantle Press), update 1/10/20, see my review Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (HarperCollins), see my review From the Wreck by Jane Rawson […]

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