Fiction – Kindle edition; Seizure; 110 pages; 2017.
Winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize and shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, Mirandi Riwoe’s The Fish Girl is a lush, fable-like novella set in Indonesia.
It tells the coming of age story of Mina, a young village girl whose life is changed forever when her fisherman father sends her away to become a servant for a Dutch merchant. Sent to work in the kitchen under the bold and fierce tutelage of head cook Ibu Tana — a woman so large she has to come down the staircase sideways — Mina finds herself learning new dishes and discovering new tastes: her sense of wonder is palpable.
[…] in the Dutch house Mina eats well, tastes sauces and sweets she never knew existed. She wishes her mother could try these wonderments, and vows to take her some food wrapped in banana leaves when she returns to the village for a visit, even if she has to steal morsels from behind Ibu Tana’s back. One of the first things she learns to cook is pisang epe. Ibu Tana teaches her to fry the banana with palm sugar until it is brittle and sweet, how to recognise when to take it from the pan. Mina learns to knead dough for Dutch desserts and Chinese dumplings, how to slice the shallots and garlic so finely that, when fried, they become as wispy as wood shavings.
Slim and pretty, she is soon promoted to serving the food to the Master and his regular guests, one of whom — a fat, jolly sea captain — takes a shine to her. Before long she is asked to give him Malay language lessons and he bestows her with lavish gifts, including a wooden box filled with frangipani flowers and a delicate gold anklet.
But Mina, who is young and naive, is unaware that this attention might come at a price: she is more interested in Ajat, the beautiful boy who drives the horse and cart when she is sent to buy goods from the Chinese produce store.
They’re quiet on the short drive to the produce store. Her arm rubs against his as they sway along the dirt road and she watches for finches in the trees, on the curiously shaped roofs of the Dutch houses. Sometimes she glances down at Ajat’s fingers, dark and tapered, controlling the reins. She peers at the vein that ropes up from the heel of his hand and across his forearm. He doesn’t smell of the sea anymore. His scent is sweeter, of sweat and horse. His knee bumps against hers once in a while. They trundle down the road towards the beach and she leans forward, yearning for a touch of the salt water on her toes. Ajat presses her back.
The course of true love never did run smooth, though, and Mina is betrayed in a brutal, devastating way, leaving this reader somewhat shell-shocked.
Many of you might know that The Fish Girl was inspired by Somerset Maugham’s short story The Four Dutchmen, which is about a native girl who breaks up the lifelong friendship between a ship’s captain and his three companions. I’ve not read that story myself, so it certainly didn’t hinder my enjoyment of Riwoe’s novella, but I suspect it might enrich or enhance the reading experience if I had. (Sue, at Whispering Gums, has reviewed both and this seems to confirm my theory.)
What I loved about The Fish Girl, aside from the lush descriptions of food and landscapes and the achingly beautiful way Riwoe writes about life through Mina’s eyes, is that it perfectly encapsulates worlds colliding, whether that be Mina’s traditional upbringing coming up against colonialism or the Dutch sea captain’s love of a Javanese girl coming into conflict with his companion’s lowly view of native women.
The story is tender and sweet, brutal and charming. I read it in one sitting and was bereft when I came to the end. It is a worthy contender of the Stella Prize.