Books & Literature

Book Review: Sunbirds, by Mirandi Riwoe

HISTORICAL FICTION: 1941, West Java. Love and revolution are in the air. And war is on its way.

A sound picture of life during the war, but I found the characters were not adequately developed within the context of the plot.
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Feature image credit: University of Queensland Press

As the author of the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize-winning Stone Sky Gold Mountain, 2020 Queensland Literary Award winner Miranda Riwoe is an author I was keen to read. Her fourth novel, Sunbirds, is a piece of historical fiction set in West Java.

It is a story which promises intrigue, with a focus on the family’s daughter Anna as she becomes torn between two worlds. That of the Dutch, and that of the Javanese. Where does her personal identity lie when the two cultures she connects with are in conflict? Can she really understand what it is like to be wholly in either camp?

It is 1941 and the Japanese are soon to invade. Anna van Hoorn is the daughter of a plantation-owning family in West Java. The head of the family, her father Theodor is Dutch whilst her mother Hermine is Indonesian, ancestrally part of an upper-caste family. They employ workers from the nearby village, and Diah is the long-serving housekeeper who cares for both Hermine and Anna. As such, she is almost part of the family.

Diah’s brother Sigit is a freedom fighter and is similarly close to Anna, whilst Anna is set to wed Mattijs, a Dutch pilot and one who will increase or at least maintain her social standing (with her being Eurasian). Anna’s connection with Sigit complicates her path as he represents her ties to the Indonesian struggle for independence, while Mattijs symbolises her social status and European heritage.

Unfortunately, despite the complexity of the plot, the book was too vague for me to emotionally connect with any of the characters. The chapters flitted about focusing on different characters’ perspectives within the story (namely Anna, Mattijs, and Diah) however this was not done in such a way that it enhanced the previous chapter nor did it provide the reader with diverse insights on the same events. This disjointed approach persisted throughout the story, compounded by the inclusion of a novella.

The novella is the tale of murdered working girl, Fientje de Vries, whom Anna becomes fixated upon, desperate to find out the truth. This subplot explores the experiences of another Eurasian woman in West Java of different status and without money. While the novella eventually does tie into the main plot, it feels fanciful and Anna’s desire for her justice is somewhat contrived — she is nothing but a passive observer.

However, the novel does serve to highlight the complications of love, colonialism, racism, wealth, social standing and power during war.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

The views expressed in this review belong to the author and not Glam Adelaide, its affiliates, or employees.

Distributed by: University of Queensland Press
Released: August 2023
RRP: $32.99

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