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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Beauty is a Wound

by
Eka Kurniawan


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Beauty is a Wound



Title: Beauty is a Wound
Author: Eka Kurniawan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 470 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: Beauty is a Wound - US
Beauty is a Wound - UK
Beauty is a Wound - Canada
Beauty is a Wound - India
  • Indonesian title: Cantik Itu Luka
  • Translated by Annie Tucker

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Our Assessment:

A- : vivid characters and episodes, tumultuous story

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 29/7/2016 Lucy Popescu
The NY Times . 18/9/2015 Sarah Lyall
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/9/2015 Jon Fasman
Publishers Weekly A+ 8/6/2015 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 11/9/2015 Anthony Domestico


  From the Reviews:
  • "Annie Tuckerís skilful translation captures Kurniawanís matter-of-fact prose and black humour. Elements of the supernatural and oral storytelling combine powerfully to evoke a brutal past and some of the pivotal events that helped shape Indonesia today." - Lucy Popescu, Financial Times

  • "Itís all very skillfully done, but it can be a bit overwhelming, as when you take both the cake and the pie at the buffet, or when you go somewhere -- the rain forest, the Louvre -- where too much is going on at once. And perhaps after gorging on One Hundred Years of Solitude and other magical-realism books years ago, you might have lost your unalloyed enthusiasm for the sort of detail that abounds in Beauty Is a Wound (.....) A little prostitution can go a long way, too, and thereís an awful lot of it here." - Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

  • "Kurniawan does not merely traffic skillfully in magic realism; his Halimunda -- like García Márquez’s Macondo and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County -- lets him show how the currents of history catch, whirl, carry away and sometimes drown people. (...) In addition to a delightful irreverence toward religion, Kurniawan has an unsettling way of stirring the supernatural into the quotidian" - Jon Fasman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Upon finishing the book, the reader will have the sense of encountering not just the history of Indonesia but its soul and spirit. This is an astounding, momentous book." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(A) powerful engine of storytelling. It churns out plot after plot, character after character, drawing from a seemingly endless fund of yarns and anecdotes and myths. Itís an acutely political novel, telling the story of Indonesiaís growth from an exploited Dutch colony to an ideologically riven young nation. Yet itís also an acutely comic novel (.....) As translated by Annie Tucker, Kurniawanís prose is lucid and occasionally lyrical but never showy." - Anthony Domestico, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       History haunts Eka Kurniawan's Indonesian family-saga, Beauty is a Wound, that spans the 1920s to the end of the twentieth century. History is rarely dead and buried here -- and neither are some of the characters: at least one is plucked alive from the grave, while others resurface in a variety of spirit-forms (the 1975 massacre of over a thousand local Communists in particular crowding the city with ghostly-(omni)presences). Indeed, the novel opens memorably spectacularly, as:

     One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.
       The place where all this happens is the fictional Indonesian coastal city -- eventually becoming a popular beach resort -- of Halimunda. Some of the important characters leave the city for a while -- studying in Jakarta, fighting in East Timor, or imprisoned on the notorious Buru Island -- but those that survive return, and these side-trips barely rate much discussion: the action is centered entirely around Halimunda.
       The story is also centered around the family of Dewi Ayu, born in the 1920s to Henri and Aneu Stammler, who couldn't face their family (basically, because they were from the same family ...) and abandoned the infant, who was then raised by her grandparents. Dewi Ayu is a stunningly beautiful girl and then woman, but as for "Halimunda's Goddess of Beauty" from an earlier time, Rengganis -- whose own story also repeats itself in a modern variation, as myth proves to echo on here just like history -- beauty proves a double-edged sword. Just as Rengganis is responsible for: "the most terrible time" locally, worse than any of the wars it faced, Dewi Ayu is cursed by her own beauty. Not only she, but three of her daughters, one more stunning than the other; only the last child, which she bears just before dying (or playing dead for twenty-one years, anyway), is one she doesn't want to suffer beauty -- so she names her 'Beauty' but wishes and wills her to be repulsive, which the child is.
       Not, as it turns out, that it helps enough: beauty, in any form, turns out to be a curse -- and long-suffering wound. It is a source of power -- yet also one that is readily abused: one of Dewi Ayu's daughters, who: "had inherited her mother's almost perfect beauty as well as the piercing eyes of the Japanese man who had fucked her mother", recognizes as a teen how she can toy with men because of it:
     "I like men," Alamanda said once, "But I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more."
       As one of those she faces after she resurfaces after her twenty-one dead years reminds Dewi Ayu: "Your family's ruin was fated long ago." -- and even death isn't enough to escape it. Or, as two of her beautiful daughters realize:
     "We are like a cursed family," Adinda sobbed.
     "We are not like a cursed family," corrected Alamanda, "we are truly and completely cursed."
       Dewi Ayu and her family are clearly meant to be representative for Indonesia itself. Dewi Ayu's (very messy) heritage is both Dutch and Indonesian; she had the opportunity to abandon Indonesia during the Second World War but (semi-fortuitously) chose to remain. When the Japanese took over she was interned, and eventually forced into prostitution, to service Japanese officers -- albeit in the relative comforts of a well-run brothel. Dewi Ayu hoped to escape sex-work after the end of the war, but not all her expectations were met and she continued to work in the brothel -- doing so, however, to the extent possible, on her own terms. So also she is determined that her daughters -- the result of her sex-work -- won't themselves become prostitutes -- that is, "unless that's really truly what they want".
       Beauty is a Wound is a novel full of passions, but rarely ones in which all parties are satisfied. Although she sells her body, Dewi Ayu determines who gets access, and under what conditions; even when she first is forced into prostitution she empowers herself as much as possible in how (and how little) she gives herself to her customers. Various relationships often come with strict conditions, including marriages that remain, at least for extended periods of time, sexless -- whether because the husband understands his bride is too young, or a wife physically prevents any chance at intercourse (one does resort to an actual chastity belt) -- while even those that are based on true love don't have happy endings (indeed, rarely even stand a chance).
       In strict body-count terms, Beauty is a Wound is a brutal book: there are many deaths, some more shocking than others. Other violence -- and especially, horribly, rape -- is commonplace -- tempered only to a limited extent by the fact that the perpetrators often suffer for their wrongs too. Some large-scale deaths, such as the Communist massacre -- the local sliver of the historic terrible nationwide slaughter of the mid-1960s -- are only treated almost incidentally, but even among those deaths and brutalizations that are presented more closely and hit closer to home Kurniawan maintains a sense of casualness that helps from miring the book in simple, bloody blighting.
       The story is tragic -- at almost every turn, sooner or later -- yet there's also an indomitable spirit to it -- especially to Dewi Ayu (literally, even, as she rises from the dead) -- and an otherworldly edge that keeps the gritty realism from becoming too much to bear. The use of supernatural elements in fiction is dangerous and difficult, but Kurniawan treads this fine line exceptionally well, embellishing the real-world foundations of his story without going too far into (or relying too much on) the fantastical.
       There are several noble characters in the novel -- or, rather, characters who act nobly for a time -- but among the most impressive aspects of the book is the extent to which Kurniawan allows his characters to change -- and not necessarily to 'grow' according to circumstances, as is the usual tried and true formula; rather, he recognizes how history and events can batter humans (and human spirit), often irreparably. Dewi Ayu is a pillar, a determined woman -- accepting fate, where necessary (as in being forced into prostitution and then, by circumstances, forced to continue plying that trade), but doing so on her own terms to whatever extent possible. Other characters undergo a more tortured evolution, such as Kliwon, who similarly can not escape his fate, and becomes a Communist (and leader of Halimunda's Communist Party).
       Beauty is a Wound is a sweeping saga, focused on one family in a provincial Indonesian city, but reaching far beyond, as the complicated family-tree, like Indonesia's own complicated history, lead repeatedly to terrible tragedy. Yet for all that, and its length, Kurniawan's novel never bogs down, flitting across the decades, Indonesian history passing through it yet never weighing it down too much. There's also considerable humor to it -- even if it is often sharp, and sly -- making for a welcome lightness (though it never becomes a complete relief).
       This is an impressive epic, Kurniawan's voice and invention offering something new and different even as it is reassuringly grounded in much that is familiar. A very fine work, and a very good read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 September 2015

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Links:

Beauty is a Wound: Reviews: Eka Kurniawan: Other books by Eka Kurniawan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was born in 1975.

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© 2015-2016 the complete review

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