First published as Amba by Gramedia Pustaka Utama in Indonesian in Indonesia in 2013. English language translation by the author published by AmazonCrossing in July 2016.
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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publishers via NetGalley.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In this sweeping saga of love, loss, revolution, and the resilience of the human spirit, Amba must find the courage to forge her own path.
Amba was named after a tragic figure in Indonesian mythology, and she spends her lifetime trying to invent a story she can call her own. When she meets two suitors who fit perfectly into her namesake’s myth, Amba cannot help but feel that fate is teasing her. Salwa, respectful to a fault, pledges to honor and protect Amba, no matter what. Bhisma, a sophisticated, European-trained doctor, offers her sensual pleasures and a world of ideas. But military coups and religious disputes make 1960s Indonesia a place of uncertainty, and the chaos strengthens Amba’s pursuit of freedom. The more Amba does to claim her own story, the better she understands her inextricable bonds to history, myth, and love.
Pamuntjak begins her novel with a brief recounting of the Hindu myth of Amba, Salwa and Bhishmo, a love triangle that doesn't end well for anyone. We learn that Indonesian culture believes a child's name will have a strong influence over their life, fate if you will, so Amba's father's decision to give her this name is seen as tempting fate even though he intends that she should rise above her destiny. Amba herself however, apart from one brave stand in her youth, gets very little say in her future and this is what I found most exasperating about the book. She is perpetually defined and defines herself by her relationship to the man in her life at the time, and each of the men fulfilling this role is apparently obliged to fall in love with her solely because of her beauty.
I thought it a shame that the historical aspect of the novel is obscured by so much of this waffle as this era of civil war seemed to me to be far more interesting. I was reminded of George Orwell's Homage To Catalonia by the profusion and confusion of political groups and acronyms. Bhisma's letters, while being a weird literary device, grouped together as they are, provide fascinating insights into the lives of alleged communist political prisoners exiled from Indonesian society and I would have loved to have learned more about this. How did they live and what would it have felt like to be in a family also exiled as a reward to a 'well-behaved' prisoner? I would have preferred The Question Of Red to have been more of a deep historical novel with much less emphasis given to Amba's romantic vacillations and petty jealousies.
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Books by Laksmi Pamuntjak / Historical fiction / Books from Indonesia