I was looking for reading material in preparation for an upcoming trip to Bali, and I stumbled upon Beauty is a Wound in the library. While I thought the book would give me a sense of Indonesia and its people, it offered much more.
The novel is a statement about the Indonesian people as told through the life story of prostitute-philosopher Dewi Ayu. Born of Dutch and Indonesian parents, Dewi Ayu begins her womanhood in a Japanese prison during the WWII occupation. There, she learns how powerful sex can be. She survives to become a one-man-a-night madame, and mother to four daughters, although Dewi Ayu doesn’t know who the fathers are. Her sexual prowess is admired throughout the village. Dewi Ayu dies at 51 after birthing an ugly daughter, and miraculously comes back to life 21 years later. The novel covers pre-WWII years, when the country shifts from Dutch rule to Japanese rule. It transitions through the war into a time when Indonesians rule their own country, experiencing harsh episodes of guerilla warfare, coups, purges, and government upheaval.
The novel has a hearty dose of magical realism, from lovers that fly up into the sky in romantic bliss, to communist ghosts that offer advice, and a hunted pig that turns into a person on death. “Holy shit!”
I laughed at Kurnaiwan’s description of Dewi’s ugly fourth daughter and her turd-like face. I loved the resolution of Ma Gedik’s sixteen years waiting for his lover to join him on the hill. I was intrigued by the sexual escapades of the horny communist Kliwon.
There are many characters to keep straight and time transitions are occasionally awkward, but Beauty is a Wound is a delightful read.
While I usually go to libraries armed with a list of specific books, Beauty is a Wound confirms to me that libraries are also a great place to browse for gems like this.
A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel, Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life.
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