This book was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and when I got a couple of book vouchers for my birthday last month, I knew that I wanted to spend one on this. I spent some years growing up in Indonesia, and studied the region for years at university, and I was so excited to read this story.
“The Fish Girl” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novella based on a short story called “The Four Dutchmen” by W. Somerset Maugham. Riwoe’s story conjures a backstory for the character who is never named, but referred to as ‘the Malay trollope’. Riwoe imagines a young Indonesian girl who is hired by an Indo man to work in the kitchen of a Dutch merchant’s house. Mina is from a tiny fishing village and is very young and very naive. However, she soon settles into the routine of preparing and serving food for the master and begins to grow more confident. As time goes on, Mina is noticed by one of the master’s Dutch sailor friends as well as Ajat, a young man from her village. Despite her newfound confidence, Mina’s inexperience is taken advantage of and these men are ultimately her undoing.
This was an excellent novella. Riwoe drew on her own family knowledge as well as thorough knowledge to bring this story to life. Considering how undercooked a character she is in Maugham’s short story, this novella gives Mina a name and demands empathy from the reader when there was none originally. This book feels like a snapshot into both Indonesian culture and Dutch colonisation and it conveys so much in so little. I also loved Riwoe’s writing. I loved how she used spice and smell to bring an extra dimension to her story, and I adored her use of imagery. The similes she used were just exceptional, and completely believable as comparisons that Mina herself would use to make sense of her new life and new experiences.
I only have one criticism for this book, and it’s going to sound like a strange one, but I felt like the novella was too short. The pacing throughout the majority of the book was so perfect, but once Mina steps on the ship everything felt like it was at warp-speed. Riwoe covers all the events of “The Four Dutchmen” in only 14 pages. With all the care and detail and exactness that had been taken with the majority of the book, this part felt rushed and the situation deteriorated so quickly it was hard as a reader to keep up.
This is an excellent book and a stand-out example of the power of historical fiction to tell stories that were ignored or minimised at the time. I’m really looking forward to see more of Riwoe’s work and I am so glad that I picked this as one of my birthday books.