The Girl from the Coast – Pramoedya Ananta Toer

I am writing this on my smart phone (yippee for technology!) which turns out to be quite awkward, so I apologise if this post is not as well edited as usual! I arrived in Ubud, Bali on Tuesday and will be in South East Asia for the next two months. I will try to keep the blog updated, but it may only be short posts.

The Girl from the Coast is set on Java, (on the island next door) and written by celebrated Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

The nameless main character, simply referred to as ‘the girl’, is a pretty 14 year old who lives with her family in a fishing village. One day an important man, ‘the bendoro’, from the city learns of her beauty and wants to marry her. This is a big deal for everyone in the fishing village and her parents are pleased that their daughter will not have to grow up constantly struggling for food and money. But the girl had never thought her life was bad, she had never known anything else.

It is soon apparent that the marriage isn’t as important to the bendoro as it is to the fishing village. For one thing, the marriage takes place at the girl’s home, with a dagger to stand in for the husband. It also turns out that the bendoro already has children from other wives who, her new servant explains, have all returned to their villages. This is a horrible moment for the girl’s parents, realising that the marriage will not necessarily be long lasting.

I was expecting a violent storyline, but the bendoro is kind to the girl. She does her best to be a good and obedient wife but longs for salty sea air and freedom. Her husband is often away, so she finds herself alone in the large house. It will never feel like home to the girl, despite the beautiful clothes and jewellery. The only real friend she has is her servant, who speaks a lot about the injustices of being poor. These ideas stay with the girl from the coast well after the bendoro sends the servant away. Another servant takes her place, and life becomes harder for the girl.

Throughout the book, there is another main character; the sea. It is respected, but feared. It gives life to the villagers, but can also take life as payment. The girl longs for the sea desperately and one day her husband suggests she visits her parents.

Her visit home brings an intense and strange new feel to Toer’s writing. This section of the book has a sinister undertone, almost as if there is some terrible magic hanging over the fishing village.

By the end of The Girl from the Coast, the reader learns that the book is based on Toer’s own grandmother, which suddenly makes it an even more heart-wrenching tale.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is somewhat of a national treasure in Indonesia and I look forward to reading some more of his work. He also has an extremely interesting life story. You can read more about him in this excellent article.

To buy The Girl from the Coast, click on the picture below.

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