Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Speculative Scotswoman On: Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan

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"Up in the house that sits on the hill, a strange spell is brewing...

"To Meridia, growing up with her father Gabriel, who vanishes daily in clouds of mist, and her bewitching mother Ravenna, the outside world is a refuge. So when as a young woman her true love Daniel offers her marriage, it seems an escape to a more straightforward existence. 

"Yet behind the welcoming fa├žade of her new home lies a life of drudgery and a story even stranger than that she left behind. Aged retainers lurk in the background; swarms of bees appear at will, and of course, there’s her indomitable mother-in-law, Eva, hiding secrets that it will take Meridia years to unravel. Surrounded by seemingly unfathomable mysteries, can Meridia unlock the intrigues of the past, and thus protect her own family’s future?"


It is probably fair to say that my relationship with books has been a tumultuous one over the years. The causal factors in this are many. But one of the prime reasons I lost my ability to truly sit down and enjoy a book cover to cover is university and the courses which just did not cover the things I wanted to read. I’d be damned if maybe one book in a semester was one that actually held my attention. And even if I was lucky and that one, or even two, books would appear in the curriculum, analysing it this way and that in order to take a very slanted and fractured understanding of the text just didn’t do it for me. Well, in 90% of cases it didn’t. There were other reasons that books and I ended up somewhat at loggerheads, but I suppose this is the main one. However I am delighted to be able to report that my initial passion and spark for books, the very spark that prompted me to study English in the first place, has been well and truly reignited. And as I am sure you can all understand, a certain literary Scotsman, whom I like to call my better half [better is pushing it – ED], has been a fundamental element in rekindling that flame.

I have read a lot this year: a couple of really good books and few truly exceptional ones. I am pleased to say that Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist was very much a book in that latter category. The novel was stuffed under my nose with the promise that not only would it excite my passion for reading, but that it would delight and move me - and my sensibilities as well. It achieved this, truly, and more besides. This is Setiawan’s debut novel - which is starling in itself - as from the first sentence I was hooked. The man has such a clear narrative voice, his prose dances and delights, and ultimately had me squealing for more [squealing, you say? – ED].

Rarely have I come across a book with characters that tug my heartstrings so tightly. Setiawan’s skill lies in his ability to fully develop every facet of a character’s being. There are three main characters, the “three strong women” the cover alludes to: Meridia; her mother, Ravenna; and Meridia’s mother-in-law Eva. Yet there are perhaps another ten characters of significance, ranging from family members to potential suitors and servants. Traditionally, this would likely a cluttered narrative make, but instead this cast work together to provide a united front throughout the text. No matter which narrative thread the text jumps to, as a reader you are more than contented in looking into the aspect of the character you are presented with. Each character works to accentuate another’s virtues or flaws. Indeed, one character’s misgivings and misdemeanours literally shakes the entire web, and all the interwoven narrative threads vibrate and pulse accordingly.

Setiawan has a supreme grasp of dramatic tension: how to manipulate the reader’s sensibilities and ultimately shift their beliefs and sympathies from where they lay initially. There are a few characters whom I had no sympathy with initially, such as Ravenna and Gabriel, Meridia’s mother and father respectively. To begin with I was overjoyed when Meridia made her break for freedom from her detached and downright spiteful parents. Yet, in the later throes of the novel, the mere mention of either Ravenna or Gabriel had me cheering. The narrative, which chronicles decades of these characters lives, is a maze of spiralling relationships. Sympathies turn and lose themselves, only to be rekindled and remodelled around the corner. Indeed, it’s difficult to do justice to the raw and naked emotion that permeates this novel. The frustration, anger and utter bitterness I felt for Eva, Miridia’s venomous mother-in-law, throughout the entirety of Of Bees and Mist had me desperate to jump into the text and have it out with her myself. Yet, and I’m actually somewhat loathe to admit this, Setiawan again flipped all my perceptions and opinions of Eva, and in the end while she was still without doubt a vile woman, I felt somewhat sympathetic towards her. I wanted her to crumble, and whatever her ultimate fate, Setiawan so skilfully managed to play with my very humanity that in the end I was frustrated with myself for my hatred ebbing away. Rarely have I so desperately wanted someone to get their comeuppance as I did this woman, but in the end, I was forced to question everything.

Of Bees and Mist is an exceptionally emotional read, one which is heightened by its author’s deft use of sensory perception. Setiawan has created a tactile world in which every sense is finely tuned and used to construct the reality in which the characters reside. Smells permeate, sounds pulse and light gleams through the pages. Each and every page in fact oozes with sensory descriptors that root the reader firmly in the narrative. You can sympathise with Meridia so completely as it feels very much that you are in the throes of the narrative with her. The sensory element of the text even goes so far as to ground its supernatural elements so that they do not seem the main focus of the text.

Despite my initial expectations of the text, I would not go so far as to say this is in fact a supernatural or particularly magical book [what blasphemy is this? – ED]. There are paranormal, supernatural and indeed magical motifs throughout the narrative, yet cleverly these are themes which the reader can take as literally or symbolically as they so choose. At the opening of the narrative, the supernatural is rather foregrounded, and perhaps during these first few pages an uncertainty as to exactly what direction the text is going to take is to be expected. However, these narrative devices do not encompass a disproportionate amount of time later in the novel. In fact, the devices established in the opening chapter are later used subtlety and strategically in order to establish the nobility and morality of each character. Throughout there are hints and allusions to the otherworldly, yet this is not the main arc of the story. These touches are intrinsic to Of Bees and Mist, but not overpowering: this is a book about the importance of relationships, understanding and truth. The occult is used merely as a means to demonstrate these larger narrative themes, and Setiawan’s deft use of sensory descriptors achieves this end effortlessly. The realism of the text removes the reader from the realm of the fantastical and plunges them deeply into the lives and hearts of the characters.

What I loved about this book was its cyclical nature. Every thread was tied up and woven into another plot. The narrative did not shy away from the harsher aspects of life, nor was Setiawan afraid to have a few – dare I say, many – characters kick the proverbial bucket. Yet each death was related with such style and grace, poetically in fact, that as much as it broke my heart, they felt apt. It is a testament to Setiawan that his prose holds such strength. He constructs and deconstructs relationships and in the end the reader is left questioning exactly where their morality lies. Such a craftsman he is, that he picks you up, swirls you round and in the process shakes up every emotion you could possibly have. In the end, he drops you gently, but nonetheless, you feel shaken inside.


Of Bees and Mist
by Erick Setiawan
December 2009, Headline Review

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  1. A lovely debut! I have it on my to-read list now, I doubt I would have heard of it without your review, thanks! :D

  2. Well written and wonderful start! I look forward to many more great reviews. :)

  3. I just finished reading Of Bees and Mist this very moment! And at first, it seems like an Indonesian tv series (Or what we call as sinetron) where they usually have too much dramas, as well as exaggerated face expressions and pauses when things get more intense, but these are well scenarios of dramas, and despite how I always hate dramas, I can't take my eyes off of the book. And I agree with your review, Setiawan is sure skilled in stirring one emotions over the other from one character to another.