December 26, 2016 by Zoë
Jalan Jalan by Mike Stoner follows a British man who moves to Indonesia to teach English. He made this decision after the death of his girlfriend, Laura, a loss with which he is still struggling to come to terms. Over the course of the novel, the protagonist explores Sumatra while his dead girlfriend follows.
I went into this book unsure about how I would like it. It seemed like it would be a story about uninformed expats doing silly things in Indonesia and, don’t get me wrong, a lot of that happened. And I didn’t like it, though I found it realistic. Despite this, I still often found myself caught up in the story. The protagonist’s struggle to deal with the loss of his girlfriend seemed really real.
There were also some surprising moments of insight into Indonesia. At times, the country seemed like just a background with Indonesians acting as caricatures. However, the author clearly is trying to make a commentary about race relations within Indonesia. The book is set not long after the riots in 1998, and the impact of these riots actually constituted part of a secondary plot. Of course, there was no background about the riots given at all, so I’m not sure what readers who know nothing about Indonesia would think when reading. I, however, really appreciated this side plot.
The book seemed disorganized, or perhaps disconnected. Part of this, I think, was an intentional stylistic choice. However, it was sometimes hard for me to tell if we’d slipped into a flashback, especially because the narrator spends the whole book talking to an apparition of his dead girlfriend. Is he talking to her now or in the past? Hard to tell. Again, I think this was intentional, but it made for a very frustrating experience for me.
The ending also seemed to come on too quickly and to be too much of a change from what had come before. It got very…strange in terms of philosophizing about time. It was somehow also satisfying, but still hard to understand.
There also is the ever-present problem of foreigners behaving badly. There’s tons of drug use, tons of drinking, tons of treating the locals as second-class, baffling, and worthy of scorn. And none of this was ever really addressed. A couple of the Indonesians also told the protagonist that it was his job to go back to England and tell the world what life was really like in Indonesia. Except had he really experienced life in Indonesia? Debatable. Overall, this was really problematic for me, even if it was also realistic. There are definitely foreigners like this in Indonesia.
This book is trying to do interesting things and succeeds on some levels. However, I feel like it could have done with a bit more reworking to make the overall arc clearer and more understandable. The points it hits about grief and loss are spot-on. This one is definitely a mixed bag, but it does have some high points.
“The past is still there. And you can live it any way you want. You just have to get there, and when you do, you can eat something different.”
I received an electronic copy of this book through Edelweiss for this review.