The dozen or so books about Indonesia that I’ve reviewed have been undertaken with a fairly serious approach. There’s a notebook and pen beside me as I read so that I can jot down quotes which I’ll possibly embed somewhere in my prose, so I’ll have an outlined framework ready as I reach the last page.
But not Mike Stoner’s first novel: I romped through it in no more than a couple of sittings. But that was because for me, and I suspect many readers of this review, there is a familiarity, a recognition that we both accepted happenstance – a job offer based on a five minute interview ‘back home’.
An added connection for this reviewer, as well as other contributors here, is that ‘Newbie’ and I came here to teach English in a language school. He landed, jet lagged, in Medan at the dawn of the new millennium, just two years after the anarchic chaos preceding Suhartos’ abdication in May ’98.
When it’s the time to enter the next phase of one’s life because an escape clause from the past may be needed, the culture shock of a ‘wonderland’ can oddly aid personal readjustments. Learning an unknown language and that knives aren’t part of the dinner table place settings, coping with different weather conditions and that if you’re able to adapt, then you can learn to survive.
Newbie’s past as ‘Old Me’ is heart-wrenching: the death of his true love Laura. She is a ‘ghost’, a voice in his head who won’t leave him as he relives their intense relationship from their first meeting in a seaside tea shop where he was working, through scenes which range from raunchy to reflective. He has an ongoing conversation with her even until the end of the book 285 pages later when Newbie believes he has become ‘New Me’.
Or has he?
When Newbie isn’t having a conversation with his inner voice, he describes his life outside: the Old and the New are inseparable.
It is this consistent autobiographic voice which keeps readers engaged. Incidents and descriptions are of the time, although with clove cigarettes apparently at Rp.300 a pack it did cross my mind that Stoner had got the decades mixed up: a dozen years earlier my Commodore were a cheap Rp.500 a pack.
“I walk down the street, the busy, hot, stinking street where dust sticks to me and everyone watches me. Watches the foreigner. The strange man who is so big and awkward. Out of place like an elephant in a field of sheep.”
His colleagues in the Medan’s language schools are familiar, especially Kim, forever effing and blinding (Hi, Carl), aloof Naomi, and the “hippy chick” Julie. With the week’s classes finished, their Friday nights in Mei’s place downing umpteen large bottles of Bintang remind me of the glory days of Jakarta’s Blok M. There are also weekend jaunts together out of town: to Bukit Lawang, the tourist town famous for its orangutan sanctuary (before the flash flood which wiped it out in 2003), and Prapat beside Lake Toba. (For Jakartans read Pelabuhan Ratu, Carita or Puncak.)
All that, though, is the everyday reality masking the hallucinatory conversation with Laura, not that the ‘magic’ mushrooms, ecstasy and marijuana from Aceh marketed by both sides in the ‘civil war’ then under way further north had no influence.
Inevitably it seems, as a single white guy, he attracts a girlfriend, Eka, who is not so much an on-the-rebound foil as a practical, no nonsense source of succour, something of a nurse.
“What is she to me? It’s not love, I know that. She is a sounding board, someone to tell my pathetic woes to. Someone who is mine and not connected to anything else. She is my release and my fantasy. She is my sanity too.
“I should go to work,” I say.
“Yes, go to work and think of Eka, not dead girl.”
The “dead girl” Laura takes an active part in Newbie’s everyday life, offering a commentary, advice and criticism in equal doses. The manner of her passing isn’t disclosed for some time; then its sheer mundane wastefulness adds to the sense of tragedy and his bewilderment of a life, their life together, lost. Empathetic readers will ponder the fragility of our own lives.
I’ve had to watch you with this girl. Use her for your own selfish needs. Well, I feel responsible. If it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t be falling for my Ice-Cream Boy. Because of me she’s going to feel heartbroken and abused by you. I’m trying to be your conscience.
You lost that right when you died.
I didn’t ask for it.
I know. I’m sorry. But I didn’t ask for what you left me.
Such is the rare integrity and intensity in the narrative as the ‘Old Me’ gradually becomes the sought for ‘New Me’ that I suspect readers will have one question to ask Mike Stoner: how much of this account of coming to terms with a bereavement is ‘factual’?
I’ve asked it for you, and he told me that his reason for coming here wasn’t exactly the same as Newbie’s.
“That part was based on an unhappy event in an earlier life. However I had been through the mill a bit with relationships and stress prior to Indonesia, and really felt I had to get away to somewhere completely different. And being in a place where I knew no-one and no-one knew me, certainly allowed me to go a little wilder than I would have done before. I wasn’t the usual ‘Mike’ there for sure. There was some subconscious re-invention and certainly a fair amount of not caring about what people thought, but I’m well and truly ‘Old Me’ at the moment.
“Not sure that’s a good thing but hey ho.”
Yes it is, Mike, you’ve written an impressive story and I for one look forward to reviewing your next one.
First published in the Indonesia Expat magazine.