15 Great Books on Indonesia

by Jul 22, 2020Books, Indonesia

I’ve wanted to visit Indonesia ever since I was a young girl in my twenties. There’s just something about a country of 17,000 islands that has always intrigued me. I even had a plane ticket heading to Denpasar, Bali in April.  I never made it. You all know the story: Coronavirus. Pandemic. Lockdown. Borders closed. Blah, blah, blah.

So, what’s a girl with wanderlust but nowhere to go do? Well, stay home and binge on books on Indonesia. And so instead of lying on a beach in Bali or traipsing over the ruins of Borobudur or spotting Komodo dragons in Flores, I’m sitting on a $20 plastic lawn chair in my parents’ backyard with my face buried in my Kindle and if not my body at least my mind transported to Bali, Lombok, Jakarta, Flores, Sulawesi, etc.

Here is a list of the 15 and still counting books about Indonesia that I read. I’ve made a concerted effort to read books by Indonesians. This has led me to find a few gems that I hope you also take some time to pick up and read.

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Books on Indonesian History

If you’re like me and know little about the history of Indonesia, start here on your reading adventure of Indonesia. Reading a book on Indonesian history will help you understand better the rest of the books on this list of books about Indonesia.

1. A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation

By Tim Hannigan (2015)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“But there is another kind of tangible history, one that cannot easily be corralled to meet the needs of authority. It is there when Indonesians speak of churches or flags or windows and unknowingly use a Portuguese word to do so. It is there when they talk of the exhaust pipe of their car or the washbasin in their bathroom, and use a Dutch term for the purpose; or when they speak of thoughts and breaths and books and schedules and use Arabic words, but then use Sanskrit terms when they describe stories and colour and language, and even simple things like bread and hats. It is there in the words for ‘you’ and ‘me’ in Jakarta patois, lu and gue, which come from the Chinese Hokkien dialect. It is there in the food carts selling Chinese-style noodles and meatballs at every street corner in every town on every island in the country.”

Before reading any other book about Indonesia, read Tim Hannigan’s A Brief History of Indonesia  By having an overview of the country’s history, you’ll be better able to understand and appreciate other books set in Indonesia.

The first three chapters cover the earliest known history up to the 1400s, the beginning of colonialism. I felt that these chapters were the weakest part of the book, and while reading it, I literally wanted to throw my Kindle across the room in frustration. Partly it was the writer’s fault (it read like an excerpt from an Encyclopedia), but also mine as well for just not having enough previous knowledge of pre-colonial Indonesian history to follow the history. My mind kept on wandering before I would even finish a sentence.

However, I’m glad I stuck with the book because starting in chapter four, East meets West begins and the writing and history take off. And the book flew by fast (hard to do with a history book) as I became engrossed in the stories of the fighting between European nations over control of the spice islands, Indonesia’s war of independence, the reigns of Sukarno and Suharto, and the post-Suharto years. Hannigan’s account of post-colonial history was as exciting as that of say accounts of Germany or China’s histories.

I want to end this review by saying that I really liked Hannigan’s writing style. He has a unique way of ending his paragraphs with a little cliffhanger. It keeps you wanting to go on even when you’ve got to get to work.

2. In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Change

By Richard Lloyd Parry (2007)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“An extraordinary thing had taken place, and passed by with no more than a glance from the outside world: an ethnic war of scarcely imaginable savagery, fought according to principles of black magic, a couple of hours’ drive from a modern city of banks, hotels, and airports.”

Have you ever read a book that made you angry with yourself?

Angry because you’re reading about something horrible that happened in the world that you didn’t know about at the time it was going on? Maybe the media didn’t mention it or maybe you just didn’t care enough to pay attention. 

That is what it felt like to me while reading In the Time of Madness. Why wasn’t I aware of what was happening in Indonesia in the 1990s? To East Timor? To the Chinese in Indonesia?

In the Time of Madness is one of the most disturbing and most important books on Indonesia that I’ve read.

Written by foreign correspondent, Richard Lloyd Parry, it’s about a series of disturbingly violent events that took place in Borneo, Jakarta, and East Timor in the late 1990s.

Borneo, 1997 and 1999: 

While covering the elections in Jakarta, Parry heard rumors of fighting between two ethnic groups in Borneo: Christian Dayak and the Muslim Madurese migrants. 

Sparked by a minor incident between the two groups, the Dayak proceeded to drive out the Madurese by burning down their homes and businesses and murdering them (men, women, children, babies, and the elderly) indiscriminately by beheading them and then eating them.

Reading Parry’s own account of seeing headless bodies and people eating human femurs and hearts and his interviews with the Dayak who cheerfully brag about their cannibalism is chilling and unforgettable.

Jakarta: The second part takes place in 1998 in Jakarta during the Southeast Asian financial crisis and the reign of Suharto and his corrupt family. Student protests broke out across Java and Sumatra calling for Suharto to step down. Parry describes how the government responded and then how the protests went from peaceful to an attack on the Chinese-Indonesian population. 

East Timor: The last part of this book on Indonesia involves the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. It wasn’t until 1974 that Portugal finally gave East Timor its independence. In 1976 the Indonesian army invaded and annexed East Timor. From 1976 to 1998, East Timor experienced guerilla warfare and reprisals by the Indonesian military.

Finally, in 1998, Habibe, the president at the time, announced that Timorese would be allowed to vote on whether to stay with Indonesia or have Independence in what was called a “popular consultation” (not exactly a referendum). 

In the Time of Madness is probably the most important book about Indonesia on this list. It reveals so many things about Indonesia that I didn’t know and so many things about governments, militaries, and ethnic conflict in general.

3. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History

Giles Milton (1999)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“The island can be smelled before it can be seen. From more than ten miles out to sea a fragrance hangs in the air, and long before the bower-hat mountain hoves into view you know you are nearing land.”

Another informative and entertaining history book on Indonesia is Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. Written by Giles Milton, the book tells the story of the competition between Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and England for control of the spice islands—a tiny group of islands located in southeastern Indonesia, officially called the Maluku Islands. However, the book mainly focuses on the most lucrative islands in the Malukus, an even tinier group called the Banda Islands, the only place in the world where nutmeg used to grow.

In the 1400s and 1500s, it was believed that nutmeg was a magical cure for the plague that was ravaging Europe then. Profits from the sale of nutmeg were astronomical. (Hmmm, gets me thinking about would happen if there finally is a vaccine for COVID19)

In the Banda Islands, one pound of nutmeg cost less than one English penny. In London, that same spice sold for 2.10 pounds—a mark-up of a staggering 60,000 percent.

Getting to these islands via the route around the continent of Africa wasn’t easy. Many ships never made it. Merchants and explorers looked for alternative passages to get to the islands—some sailed across the top of Russia, while others sailed west, leading to the European discovery of the Americas. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg tells the story of these attempts.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is a fascinating and suspenseful book. You never know if an expedition is going to be successful or not. And the hardships and adventures some of them faced made it hard to put down the book.

I’m so thankful to Giles Milton for opening my eyes to the tragedy that the people of the Banda Islands endured. Their lives and their islands were completely destroyed by the West, yet so few people know about it.

Read this book! At least so that more people know about what happened to the people of the Banda Islands.

When the world opens up again and we can travel, I’m heading to Indonesia first, and the Banda Islands will definitely be on my itinerary.

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Travel Books set in Indonesia

If you’re interested in learning more about Indonesia beyond the islands of Bali and Lombok, I highly suggest reading one of these two travel books on Indonesia–most likely, Indonesia, Etc.

4. Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation

By Elizabeth Pisani (2014)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.’ Indonesia has been working on that ‘etc.’ ever since.”

If you really want to understand Indonesia from the comfort of your home, get Elizabeth Pisani’s book, Indonesia, Etc. Along with her years as a reporter and epidemiologist in the 1990s in Indonesia, Pisani spends a year traveling from one end of Indonesia to the other.

She travels to Sumba Island, Flores, West Timor, Sulawesi, Maluku, Kei Islands, Banggai Islands, Aceh region of Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok, Borneo, and a few other smaller islands. As she travels, she immerses herself in the lives of the people of this archipelago by living with the locals, working alongside them, talking to them, and listening to them. She weaves these stories of her travels with information about Indonesian culture, history, and current events.

This is a fascinating and well-written book about Indonesia. Pisani’s understanding of the country and the language are so good that at one point a group of villagers on one island sits around discussing whether Pisani is from Java or a foreign country.

5. The Malay Archipelago

By Alfred Russel Wallace (1869)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“To Charles Darwin, author of “The Origin of Species,” I dedicate this book, not only as a token of personal esteem and friendship but also to express my deep admiration for his genius and his works.”

The Malay Archipelago is the perfect book about Indonesia for those who love reading about both travel and scientific discoveries. Written by Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago is the recounting of his travels over several years around what is now Indonesia and Malaysia and his theory of the natural history of the archipelago.

Born in the nineteenth century. Alfred Russel Wallace was a naturalist, explorer, traveler, socialist, etc. etc. etc. who independently came up with the theory of evolution based on natural selection at about the same time Charles Darwin did.  Unfortunately, most people remember Darwin as the guy who thought of the idea.

I did a bit more research on this discovery and found that Darwin’s diaries prove that he had come up with the idea before Wallace. But he didn’t make them public until after he received a letter from Wallace where he tells Darwin about his theory of natural selection.

Luckily, for Wallace, he did get credit for coming up with another theory that this book is based on and which I will explain later in the review.

The book is divided into five sections. The first section is devoted to Wallace’s theory that based on the flora and fauna of the Malay Archipelago, the northern and western part (Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and Bali) were originally part of the Asian continent while the eastern part (Sulawesi, Maluku, Papua New Guinea, Banda Islands, and Lombok were originally part of the Australian continent. The division between these two parts is known as the Wallace Line.

Part two through six read like diary entries (we did this and then we did that) with detailed descriptions of the flora, fauna, typography, and people and customs of the archipelago along with his views of colonialism, slavery, and the different races. Each section ends with a wrap up of what he saw and how they prove his theory.

I found that the best way to read The Malay Archipelago was to keep your internet browser open to several windows:

  • Google Maps,
  • YouTube (videos of the fauna),
  • Wikipedia (background and history of each island),
  • a search engine window (to look up the flora and fauna)

I also kept my Indonesia Lonely Planet book with me, which I came with my Kindle Unlimited subscription. Having all these at your fingertips makes it easier to follow what he’s saying and where he’s going.

I have really mixed feelings about The Malay Archipelago. On the one hand, it’s informative and inspiring. I loved reading Wallace’s scientific discoveries and his descriptions of the flora and fauna, the Dutch colonial system, and the local customs of the various islands. The ethnic diversity of the archipelago is something I was unaware of before. And I now have a better idea of what places I want to see on my trip to Indonesia (definitely, Sulawesi).

Now for the bad: Wallace was a racist and misogynist who was also a firm believer in colonialism. Surprised? You shouldn’t be given that he lived during a time when most white people were as well. I thought about not finishing the book because of what kind of person Wallace turned out to be, but then decided to continue because I found his views to be fascinating in a historical sense. THIS is what people thought back then, It’s horrible. But here’s direct proof!

It was also a nice companion to the debate about the dismantling of statues of historical figures. Should they be taken down or not? Should we still revere these men who on the one hand accomplished great things in science or politics but on the other hand, held horrible views of race and gender or even held slaves?

Anyway, I’d like to give you a few examples to show you what I mean by some of his views. Here is what he has to say about the people of Sulawesi:

The missionaries, however, have much to be proud of in this country. They have assisted the government in changing a savage into a civilized community in a wonderfully short space of time.

And here is what he has to say about why the population of the archipelago never increased under the Dutch:

The missionaries should take up the question, because, by inducing married women to confine themselves to domestic duties, they will decidedly promote a higher civilization, and directly increase the health and happiness of the whole community.

There are also countless descriptions of Wallace killing animals and skinning them to take them back to England to be displayed in museums. I can get over his killing of birds. But his killing of so many orangutans left me disgusted. There is one incident of a mother and her baby orangutan that was just appalling and another incident of a primate (don’t remember which kind) that he captures that is equally horrible.

I could go on and on about Wallace’s views. But I think you get the picture.

I still recommend reading The Malay Archipelago if you’re into history, science, and/or travel.

Books about Bali

For those who are just interested in reading books on Bali, here is a list of five books you might want to check out. There are some good ones here and some real humdingers. To be honest, I wish there was something better than these five.

6. Bali Daze: Freefall off the Tourist Trail

By Cat Wheeler (2009)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“I was once asked to speak to a class at an International School about adjusting to life in Asia. I declined, because I don’t think it is a skill that can be learned. Like the cellular memory of a begonia cutting, I believe we are born with the potential to thrive in different climates and cultures. If we don’t have that, no amount of wishing or training will make it so. Perhaps.”

Bali Daze is a memoir written by Cat Wheeler, a Canadian woman who moves to Bali. She builds a house there and acquires a whole bunch of animals from dogs to ducks.

The book consists of short disconnected chapters filled with anecdotes of her life in Bali, her impressions of Bali culture, and her opinion of environmental issues facing Bali.

My one gripe with the book is that there are too many grammar mistakes (verb tense errors), typos and typesetting mistakes (no spacing between periods and the beginning of the next sentence), choppy writing, and unfinished sentences. All these errors were sometimes distracting.

There’s some fascinating content about Bali culture and society. It’s interesting learning about the gamelan, Nyepi, and other Balinese beliefs about ghosts and spirits.

She has another book on Bali called Retired Rewired: Retired, Rewired: Living Without Adult Supervision in Bali.

7. Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

By Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.”

Eat Pray Love is the story of Elizabeth Gilbert’s travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia after the collapse of her marriage, bouts of terrible depression, and the end of a love affair. She quits her job and sells everything to travel the world to search of herself. She goes to Italy to learn Italian and to eat Italian food, to India to meditate and find herself, and to Bali to visit a medicine man and find balance.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love this book and those who hate it. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s in between.

I fall into the “love it” camp. For those who hated it, please don’t be put off from trusting my other reviews of books about Indonesia. Let me explain why love this book:

I love it when authors show their vulnerability and reveal their deepest darkest secrets and the worst parts of their personalities. Gilbert does a lot of that in this book.

And as someone who is filled with a similar sense of wanderlust and who is a commitment-phobe like Gilbert, I could relate to her as a person. I was going through a divorce and depression at the same time I was reading this book, and so much of what she wrote was how I felt during and after my marriage—the fear of taking that big step of leaving and the inability to admit when something is over.

I’m not going to say anything more about this book. It’s too well-known to go into detail. I love travel memoirs and most of them can be really self-indulgent. That has never bothered me.

8. A House in Bali

By Colin McPhee (1947)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Balinese music is based on five tones. In the sacred writings of the priests these tones have cosmological significance, for they are linked with the gods of the five directions, north, east, south, west, and centre, where in the middle of a lotus sits Batara Siva, Creator, Destroyer, Lord God of All.”

I didn’t find what I was looking for in Bali Daze. But I did find a bit of that ex-pat life I wanted to read about in Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali. It’s about the author’s time spent living and building a house on the island of Bali in the 1930s.

McPhee, a composer, one day hears a recording of some Balinese music, the gamelan (traditional ensemble music of Bali made up of mostly percussion instruments). He’s so intrigued that he sets off to Bali to learn more about it. McPhee travels to Indonesia three times, staying for a year to several years each time. On his second trip, he builds a traditional Balinese style house there.

He fully immerses himself in the Balinese culture by spending most of his time with the local Balinese people and not with other ex-pats. All of his closest friends seem to be Balinese.

The book is filled with lots of information about Balinese music, and even if you’re like me and have no ear for music, you’ll still find McPhee’s passion for the music engrossing. The book is also filled with lots of anecdotes about Bali culture and the Balinese people.

I think what makes this such a great book about Indonesia is the writer himself, Colin McPhee. I learned not just about Bali but I also learned about how to be a better visitor to a foreign country. He’s curious, open-minded, observant, and patient. For a man of the 1930s, he’s the least racist or bigoted person I’ve met in a book from that time period. There is not an ounce of white or western superiority. The little things that annoy most western tourists seem to roll right off him. He takes everything in stride.

Throughout A House in Bali, I had a nagging feeling, though, that the author was hiding something. In all the years that he lived there, he never once mentioned a lover or romantic companion. He’s celibate? He’s gay? Upon further research, I learned that McPhee’s wife was with him the whole time he was in Bali. Not once does he mention her. When they left Bali permanently, they divorced. I guess his revenge was to erase her from this book. Ouch!

9. Love and Death in Bali

By Vicki Baum (1937)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The gods did not make men that they might work till they dropped, but that they might enjoy life and have time to keep the feast days and have enough rest”

Another book about Bali that I read was Love and Death in Bali. Written by the German writer, Vicki Baum (she also wrote Grand Hotel) and published in 1937, Love and Death is based on the letters and notes of a friend of Baum’s, a Dutch doctor who lived in Bali for many years.

The story is set against the backdrop of the Dutch conquest of the Kingdom of Bandung (now known as Denpasar) and the mass suicide of the Bali royal family called the “puputan.”

The book follows the story of Pak, a selfish and rather foolish rice farmer. He’s married and has several daughters, the latter of which in Bali culture is considered a fate worse than death. In his eyes, his wife isn’t beautiful enough for him (but she is by far much smarter than he is; the moments when she one-ups him are some of the best scenes in the book), so he goes in search of a second wife. Along with the romantic angle, Pak also goes about attempting to improve the life of his family through land acquisition, selling his sister off to the local Raja,  cockfighting, and salvaging from a shipwreck.

There are a few secondary Dutch and Balinese characters that we hear about as well. None of them are really that interesting.

The story is entertaining and the details of Balinese culture and history are fascinating.

I have one major quibble with the book, and that is the superficial and brief way the author dealt with the aftermath of the Dutch invasion and the mass suicide of the royal family.  I understand from doing some background reading on Baum that she was a great admirer of the Dutch colonial system, so she may have seen these events in a positive light.

I do highly recommend Love and Death in Bali. The story is interesting and learning about the events that led up to the invasion and suicide is enlightening.

Fiction Books about Indonesia

10. The Birdwoman’s Palate

By Laksmi Pamuntjak (2018)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“After all, instinct doesn’t fall from the sky or seize you like a jin, directing your five senses to the right choice without fail. Instinct is born of experience.”

It took me a long time to get through The Birdwoman’s Palate not because it was bad, but because I wanted to savor the beautiful descriptions of the food and places of Indonesia.

The Birdwoman’s Palate follows the story of Aruna (Birdwoman because she studies zoonotic diseases from birds), a thirty-something single and very snarky and socially-awkward Indonesian woman who is an epidemiologist and a foodie (her palate). Her employer (some government department called SoWeFit) sends her out to investigate eight cases of bird flu occurring in eight different cities throughout Indonesia (Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Lombok).

Aruna, who doesn’t seem to take the mission seriously, invites her two best friends (Bono, a talented chef, and Nadezhda, a food critic) to join her and a colleague that she dislikes named Farish as they visit different cities in Indonesia to investigate these bird flu outbreaks.

I really loved this book! This praise might surprise you since reviewers on Good Reads have been rather negative (3 stars total! I don’t get it!). It’s got most of the elements I love in a good book—a quirky and socially-awkward female main character, witty and sarcastic writing that’s evocative and lyrical, an ability to spark my wanderlust (I really want to explore Java and Sumatra), lots of fascinating information about Indonesia (what people think of Madurese and what the Aceh region is like after the Christmas Tsunami) and timely (she’s an epidemiologist dealing with a possible bird flu epidemic).

I love her ability to describe places so vividly.

The hospital doesn’t even look like a hospital. A facility, more like it—squalid, low security, a shelter for petty criminals instead of the infirm, the sick instead of the sickly. It even lacks the harsh fluorescent lighting usually associated with heartless functionality. Instead, there are broken bulbs, rain-stained walls, and crummy corridors from which I almost expect a zombie a tow to pop out.

But what I really love about this book is the food–lots and lots of gorgeous descriptions of delicious dishes, many of which I had never heard of before but that I now am dying to try.

  • Pempek–a savory fishcake delicacy made of fish and tapioca (Wikipedia)
  • Sate Klopo–satay mixed with grated coconut and special seasoning
  • Sambal Lingkung–fish meat pounded fine, stir-fried powder-dry, delectably seasoned with galangal, cumin, and coriander.

And some dishes that I’ve tried before and that I loved like Rujak and satay. I’m craving them as I type this sentence. There are tons of discussions about food that serious foodies would get a kick out of.

The book is not perfect. There’s a mystery (what’s with these 8 bird flu cases? what’s this possible government scandal?) that peters out, a romance (Aruna and one other character) that doesn’t sizzle, and the story of personal growth that doesn’t interest me since I love Aruna the way she is. All are overshadowed by the group’s quest to find the best dishes of each Indonesian city.

Still, I loved it!

I read this book slowly because I wanted to savor the writing. the dishes, and the travels through parts of Indonesia I never thought of traveling to before.

11. This Earth of Mankind

By Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1980)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“I put my trust in scientific understanding and in reason. With these, at least, there are certainties that can be grasped.”

Have you ever read a book that you really, really wanted to like but just couldn’t?

That is how I felt about the Indonesian classic, This Earth of Mankind. It’s the first in a series of four books called the Buru Quartet and centers on the main character, Minke, a young, ambitious, and bright Javanese man living in Surabaya during the late 1800s when Indonesia was under Dutch rule and in the throws of its Ethical Policy (the policy of improving the welfare of the Indonesians instead of just raping the country of its natural resources).

Minke is one of the few native Javanese attending a prestigious Dutch high school. He’s enamored with learning and science. One day he’s invited to the house of a wealthy concubine (nyai) and her children. He falls in love with the daughter, Anneliese, a half-Dutch and half-Indonesian young woman. He moves in with the family and eventually marries the daughter. Over time, he experiences the injustices and racism of the Dutch colonial system.

At times, I found the story a bit contrived. Some things just didn’t make sense like the father suddenly going insane or the incident involving the brothel owner.

The character of Minke is portrayed as almost super-human like that I started to hate him. The woman he falls in love with is weak and pathetic.

The writing and especially the dialogue sounds like a cheap Harlequin romance:

“Mama,” called Annelies with her eyes closed. “Where’s your cheek, Mama; here, Mama, so I can kiss it,” and she kissed her mother’s cheek.

“But don’t fall ill. Who will help me? Could you bear to watch your Mama work like a horse?”

“Mama, I’ll always help you.”

What I think is more interesting is how Pramoeday Ananta Toer wrote the book. He first told the story orally to his fellow prisoners while a political prisoner under Suharto on the island of Buru (it was against the rules to have writing utensils). When he was finally released, he then wrote it down.

I’m minorly tempted to read the second book in the series only because the book ended with a cliff hanger. 

12. Man Tiger

Eka Kurniawan (2004)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“If a man couldn’t control his beast, it could turn so violent that nothing could restrain it once enraged.”

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan was a nominee for the 2016 International Booker Prize, only to lose out to Han Kang’s, The Vegetarian (a book I loved and reviewed in my best books on Korea article).

The book starts out with a murder. Anwar Sadat (not the murdered Egyptian president) is murdered for no explicable reason. Sadat’s throat has been torn to pieces as if it were bitten by a tiger and not a human. Everyone knows who did it–Margio, a sweet, good-natured twenty-year-old man who people describe as someone who’d never hurt a fly. The mystery is why Margio killed Anwar Sadat.

Gradually, over the course of 192 pages, Kurniawan reveals the solution to the mystery by telling the story of Margio’s family through the perspective of his loving sister, his abusive father, his friends, his girlfriend and so on. It’s not until the last sentence that you discover the ultimate reason.

How well you enjoy the book depends on whether you take the story literally or metaphorically.  If you look at it literally you’ll see the story as one of family abuse and the consequences of that abuse on the minds of its victims. I was looking at the story in this way for the first 40% of the book and I was kind of just ho-hum about it.

Another is to see the story as a metaphor of colonialism. Interviews with the author actually reveal that this latter interpretation was what Kurniawan was getting at. Once I took it in this way, I began to make an emotional connection with the characters and truly appreciate its brilliance.

Man Tiger is a great book. The writing has a nice flow to it. The pace is perfect. The way the story moves back and forth in time is at first confusing but after a while, it’s used perfectly to build up suspense.

He has written a number of other books that received praise. You might also want to check out, A Beauty is a Wound. I haven’t read it yet.

13. The Moonlit Garden

By Corina Boman (2016)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“But there are times when you simply can’t know. You can take an unexpected turn in the road and find something wonderful waiting around the corner for you.”

I listened to the audio version of The Moonlit Garden by Corina Boman (the audio version was free with Kindle Unlimited).

Recently widowed, Lilly Kaiser, is given a mysterious violin by a stranger one day in her antique shop in Berlin. She’s bewildered why anyone would give her a free violin. She travels to London to get help from her friend Ellen to discover the secret of the rose violin. Together with her friend and musicologist Gabriel Thornton they uncover the story of Rose Galway, a half English and half Sumatran violin prodigy who once owned the violin that Lilly now possesses and who disappeared mysteriously one day never to be heard from again. What happened to Rose? What does Rose’s story have to do with Lilly? The book takes place in Germany, England, Italy, and Indonesia.

There’s a fun mystery here about the origins of the violin and what happened to the violinist, Rose Galway. 

I was a bit skeptical in how the author depicted Indonesian culture.  I don’t think an Indonesian mother or father would allow their daughter to live in a hotel alone in their hometown in 1902 Sumatra. 

14. Saman

Ayu Utami (1998)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“Here he would tie me to my bed at night and drill me in the first two rules of love. These were his lessons: First. It is the prerogative solely of the male to apporach the woman. A woman who chases a man is a whore. Second. A woman shall give her body only to the right man, who shall supoprt her for the rest of her life. That’s what is known as marriage. Later, when I had grown up a little, I decided that marriage was nothing more than hypocritical prostitution.”

One of the last novels about Indonesia that I read was Saman by Ayu Utami.

The book starts on an oil rig in the South China Sea. One of the main characters, Laila, is working for a production company that is doing a profile of the oil company that owns the rig. There she meets Sihar, who she falls madly in love with.

Then the story jumps to Saman, another man that Laila was madly in love with when she was younger but couldn’t have because he was a Catholic priest. The second part is the most compelling part of the novel. Here we learn how Saman went from being a priest to an activist.

The book takes another jump in narration, storyline, and timeline to that of a childhood friend of Laila’s. Here we learn about the friendship of a group of four friends and how they managed their childhood, teenage years, and young adult years dealing with their sexuality and their place as women in Indonesian society. This part was the most intriguing and I wanted to know more about these women and their friendship.

However, that would not be the case because the book then returns to Saman’s story where we learn about what happened to him in the form of emails and diary entries.

I started out really liking this book and then I ended not liking it so much. The writing had a nice flow to it and some of the characters were intriguing. I just wish it had been structured in a different way instead of jumping from storyline to storyline. It would have been better if the story had been told from the point of view of each of the four female friends with a focus on them growing up together and then becoming adults. Through these women, we learn what it’s like being a modern woman in an Islamic country.

I like the themes of feminism, sexuality, and oppression. However, I wish they had been presented in a less heavy-handed way. 

15. The Year of Living Dangerously

By Christopher J. Boch (1978)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Swift evening spreads across Jakarta. The city lies inert in a hot brown twilight, which smells of petrol, frangipani, and fear. All energy burns low, like the failing street lights; but fear mounts like erotic excitement in these stormy nights of the northwest monsoon. Jakarta awaits always for explosions.

One of my favorite fiction books about Indonesia is The Year of Living Dangerously by Australian writer C.J. Boch. The story centers around a group of western journalists covering Indonesia during the end of the Sukarno years, one of the most violent and important times in the history of Indonesia. 

The title of the book comes from the title of a speech Sukarno gave in 1964, which he had gotten from Mussolini. Sukarno had kicked out American and British journalists, left the United Nations, threatened war with Malaysia, and was on the verge of turning Indonesia into a communist state.

The story centers around two major characters: the cameraman, Billy Kwan, and the journalist, Guy Hamilton.

Billy is probably the most complex and unforgettable character in western fiction. He’s an idealistic Chinese-Australian; also a dwarf as Boch likes to remind us. Billy’s been in the country for a while, and there is a lot of mystery and rumors about him.

Billy sees a connection between the Guy and him and since Guy is fresh off the boat, Billy takes him under his wings, teaching him about Indonesia and helping him make the connections with those in power that he needs to be a star reporter in Indonesia.

As the story progresses, Billy becomes more disillusioned with Sukarno and the friendship between and Guy begins to break down all against the backdrop of a country on the brink of collapse.

The Year of Living Dangerously perfectly captures that sense of place and time. It’s so evocative of the tense atmosphere of what I would imagine Indonesia would be going through in 1965. As I was reading the book, I could feel myself transported to Jakarta. The sights, sounds, smells are so perfectly presented.

Boch knows how to write about political intrigue and setting, but the romance part of the story falls flat. There’s no chemistry between Guy and Jill or Billy and Jill.

Although I love this book, there are some things that made me uncomfortable. Pedophilia is just shrugged off. For me, I think this nonchalant attitude toward it just represented the feelings people had at the time. Still. There is also a lack of a strong female character. The one female character in the book, Jill, is dull and pathetic.

The book was also made into an excellent movie starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt. Hunt, a woman and a caucasian, played the part of Billy Kwan–you would never guess that the character is played by a woman. It’s beautifully acted. Hunt won an Academy Award for her role.

More Books on Indonesia

Here are some more books on Indonesia that I haven’t had a chance to read yet. Check them out!

Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

The Rainbow Troops

By Andrea Hirata

A Brief History of Bali

By Willard Hanna

The Paradise Guest House

By Ellen Sussman

The Question of Red

By Laksmi Pamuntjak

#10I’m glad I went on this Indonesian reading adventure. I don’t think my thirst/my curiosity/my desire to visit a country has ever been so sparked by books as it has with these 15 books on Indonesia. After reading them, I actually have an itinerary planned out for when I do make it there (must be positive!): Bali, Lombok, Sulawesi, Banda Islands, Java, and Sumatra.

If you don’t have any intention of reading 15 books on Indonesia and you just want to choose a few, here are my top 5 books:

A Brief History of Indonesia

Indonesia, Etc.

In the Time of Madness

The Year of Living Dangerously

The Birdwoman’s Palate or Man Tiger

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15 books to help you escape to Indonesia - 9 book covers

8 Comments

  1. LOVED this blog! I visited Bali a few years back & reading some o your book reviews brought me back. You’ve definitely piqued my interest about The Birdwoman’s Palate… I’m going to see if it’s on Audible (I’m an audio book reader).

    Reply
    • Sometimes reading books set in a place you’ve been are a great way to relive your travels. If you like books about food and travel, you’ll like The Birdwoman’s Palate.

      Reply
  2. What a fantastic list! I’m really interested to read the first one – about the history of Indonesia.

    Reply
    • Thank you! The history book on Indonesia is pretty good as long as you can get through the first 3 chapters, which are tedious.

      Reply
  3. This is a great curated list! I love reading and will have to check out some of these books as I would love to go to Indonesia someday.

    Reply
    • Thank you! I hope you make it to Indonesia!

      Reply
  4. OK this is great and I love the detail that has gone into the post. I’m definitely tempted by a couple of the higher-rated fiction books. Sounds like I should give The Birdwoman’s Palette a go – I’ve never heard of it before!

    Reply
    • Thank you! I really enjoyed the book. If you love books about travel and food, you might like it too.

      Reply

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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  Travel addict and bookworm! This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore the history, heritage, and culture of Asia and beyond. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make better-informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand your destination more deeply.

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