Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Book Review: Of Bees and Mist

Title: Of Bees and Mist; Kabut Masa Lalu
Author: Erick Setiawan
Publisher: Simon & Schuster; GagasMedia
Country: United States of America
Pages: 404 pages (paperback); 507 pages (paperback)
Genre: Literary fiction, magic realism, fantasy

There's a lot to say about this fascinating book. First of all, if this is your first magic realism, the story may come off as rather messy at first. You'll see curious things thrown at you at seemingly random places and time, and these things don't just pass by; they actually move the story forward. Secondly, you must have an open mind, somewhat a high imagination to suspend your disbelief and accept Setiawan's world. If you can do that, you'll get a charming household drama that is both familiar and otherworldly.

The basic premise is quite straightforward and rather soap opera-ish. Mainly it is about a female protagonist who is caught in a feud between two houses. In the first few chapters, when the protagonist is young, it seems that her enemies are her own house—her parents, and the house itself. But as the story progresses, with her marriage with Daniel of the other house, it turns out that her true nemesis is her almost-satanic mother-in-law.

What makes it different from soap operas is, you guessed it, the use of magical elements. In Setiawan's world, magic is commonplace, and is both utilitarian and superstitious. There are ghosts in the mirrors, there are colorful mists at the doorstep, there are mysterious bees and fireflies that seem to have an impact on the people they're surrounding. The wording of many of the sentences is deliberate, so as to give you a sense of magic even without the presence of actual magic. But Setiawan manages to stay true to reality, despite the surreal environments. Although strange juxtapositions are everywhere, they all have certain meanings once you get used to it. Of Bees and Mist is not an adult fairytale. Sometimes it's heartwarming, sometimes it's heart-wrenching. Characters are three dimensional, actions are believable, motives are understandable.

The pace of the story varies; sometimes it is fast and exciting, sometimes it is slower, but never dragging. It's definitely rather slow at the beginning, which, combined with the feeling of "strangeness" especially for readers new to magic realism, can produce either a big question mark or a big ho-hum, both leading to giving up early. My suggestion is: be patient, and bear with the author a bit more. You will quickly keep up with what's happening.

It can be a bit confusing to describe this book in mere words. I say just give this book a go. But keep in mind that magic realism is not everyone's cup of tea. Objectively, I think Of Bees and Mist is a great story. Yet I also can see why some people would dislike it.

This review is also available on Goodreads.

Pictured above is the cover of the Indonesian translation. The cover for the original edition published in the USA is:

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