Potions and Paper Cranes

Written by Elisabet Titik Murtisari (trans.) Lan Fang
Review by Waheed Rabbani

This novel’s mesmerizing prologue opens in 2003 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Afterward, the timeline slips to the 1940s during WWII, describing life on the island under Dutch, and later Japanese, occupation. The story is narrated in four first-person voices: that of Sulis, a young woman who sells herbal potions in Surabaya’s harbor; Sujono, a young, hard-working coolie; Matsumi, a geisha brought to Java by a Japanese general; and, Letsari, Sujono’s daughter. Sulis recounts vividly the dismal poverty and her long work days. She lives with her grandmother in a small one-room bamboo hut, where they survive on a meager diet of rice, soya sauce, and an occasional fish. Although Sulis forces Sujono into marriage, her life worsens. Sujono moves in with Sulis, abuses her, and even disowns their child. Sujono, although dreaming of Indonesia’s independence, becomes enamored with Matsumi, who returns his advances. Life gets very complicated for the trio when Sujono loses his job and Matsumi becomes pregnant. Letsari recites their heartrending lives, including the Japanese surrender, up to the novel’s poignant conclusion.

For her novel’s opening, Lan Fang has used a cinematic technique by showing a bit of the ending. While this can be risky for holding readers’ interest, it is extremely effective for this novel. After partially introducing the characters in the prologue to pique our curiosity, Fang’s strong writing keeps us turning the pages to the climactic finale. The four narratives bring to life the plight of the Indonesians: first under the oppressive Dutch colonial rule, and later made worse during the Japanese takeover. The details of war are kept to a minimum, which enable the author to focus on the lives of women in Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian cultures as well as masculine chauvinism. Readers will experience the characters’ anguish and feel as if they’d lived with them on that tropical island. Highly recommended.