I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Allen and Unwin, and I have to say at first I was a little bit skeptical. As someone who has lived and studied there for 6 years cumulatively, and who has spent an extra 8 years formally studying Bahasa Indonesia, I always have my hackles up a bit when it comes to fiction set in Indonesia. I was expecting something along the lines of “Eat, Pray, Love” – a cringey story of a white woman’s self-discovery at the expense of smiling locals. I was also expecting it to be the product of yet another writer’s retreat in Bali with only a cursory engagement with local culture and almost no awareness of the rest of the archipelago whatsoever. However, when I was having coffee with a friend recently and we visited a bookshop afterwards, leafing through the pages she pointed out that it looked like it was peppered with correctly colloquial Indonesian phrases. Perhaps I had judged this book too quickly. I decided to give it a go.
“Fearless” by Fiona Higgins is a story about six westerners who find themselves grouped together on a retreat of the same name: a week-long program to help them battle and overcome their greatest fears. Two Australian women Janelle and Cara, Englishman Henry, Frenchman Remy, Italian man Lorenzo and American woman Annie all converge together under the tutelage of Pak Tony and between them connections start to grow and walls start to crumble. Until, that is, the unthinkable happens.
This book is an easy and captivating read. Higgins has an astute eye for social detail and the each of the six characters comes alive with their own stories and fears. You can tell that Higgins has spent time living in Indonesia – this story has authenticity and complexity far beyond what you could get from a two-week holiday. I particularly enjoyed some of the cultural clashes between the westerners and the locals, especially when the westerners have their own values challenged or overhear locals criticising their wealth and privilege. Higgins is a self-aware enough writer to really shine a light on the hypocrisy of cultural supremacy. Although I shy away from westerners who go to popular tourist destinations to “find themselves”, I felt like Higgins’ characters and their journeys were nevertheless interesting and complex enough to carry this story. The six main characters are tested in more ways than one, especially Lorenzo and especially when the ultimate disaster strikes. Higgins also provides a solid introduction to the cultural and religious tensions that exist in Indonesia as well as its cultural and linguistic diversity.
However, I have to say, the one thing that irked me was the depiction of Balinese women. There were almost no Balinese women who spoke in this book, and when they did speak, they were almost never named characters. The majority of the interactions between the characters and Balinese women involve observing their exploitation, humiliation or servitude. More than one character notes how dainty, slim and attractive Balinese women are and I found that to be in stark contrast to Janelle’s plot line about championing self-worth away from body image. While there was a wide range of named male Indonesian characters of various age and background, I really felt like Indonesian women did not get a fair shake of the stick.
Nevertheless, this was a compelling story jam-packed with social issues and suspense and if you’re going to read a story about westerners finding themselves in Bali, make it this one.