Twilight in Kuta by David Nesbit

Twilight in Kuta explores love, loss and infidelity in present-day Indonesia from a number of perspectives: the bule (Caucasian) English teacher, the frustrated and cheating Indonesian wife, the mixed-race schoolgirl, the Javanese ex-soldier and the naive village girl desperate for love. Their stories intertwine throughout the book, and the various narrators offer different interpretations of the events that unfold.

The book is divided into four rather longish chapters. “Neil’s Story,” is set in pre-Internet 1990s Surabaya as the main character – a young Western tourist – works as an English teacher in language schools and tutors private students. This first chapter, the best story in the book, is a continuous tale of woe. I loved his rich description of big city life riding in crowded public buses and the inner workings of a “secretary academy.” When Neil meets Yossy on Kuta beach, he decides to settle permanently in Indonesia, sensing that his life is about to change forever. Will it lead to the happiness that he is yearning for?

When cracks start to appear in Neil’s blissful existence, he is forced to re-evaluate all that he holds dear. A sense of foreboding sets in as the writer deftly interjects warning signs of trouble ahead but does not reveal too much until his character’s naïveté, vulnerability and blind trust in those early days leads to abysmal despair as he realizes he’s been betrayed. He forgives the girl but a few months later she steals from him. One is compelled to keep reading to see what the outcome will be. Neil ultimately becomes stuck in a loveless marriage with a deceitful, lying and unfaithful wife while fathering another man’s child. The story strikes home because it feels like it’s actually happened to someone you’ve grown to know. I felt for him as a brother. This is a chilling story of unrequited love, demonic plotting by a scheming Indonesian woman and the bitter, slow motion disintegration of a marriage.

“Sari’s Story” features romantic cross-cultural relationships between an Indonesian woman and several British men. This Jakarta girl prefers bule men for their looks, education, good manners and sophistication. In this story, the writer convincingly takes on the voice, innocence and perspective of a young woman who has a series of unsatisfying encounters with western men who ultimately deceive her. Reading like a teenage heartthrob story, Sari meets them on an expat online forum and initially feels sorry for them because she perceives them as being lonely in a strange country with no friends. Like a novelist, the writer uses the literary device of enticing the reader by jumping back-and-forth between past and present. Some titillating passages almost hint of soft porn, the defilement of innocence. I found it remarkable that such intimate feelings of a woman were written by a man using deliberate lapse of syntax and prepositional phrasing which renders the narrator’s voice authentic. Yet at times one wonders why a 25-year-old woman living in a huge gritty big city sounds like a little girl. And how can an office girl without a university education write such fluent English? And how she can fall for a twice divorced 50-year-old man with two grown children is equally curious. These inconsistencies don’t ring true.

“Jack’s Story” is more believable because it is a story told by a man about another man in a sincere voice. The narrator has the same innocent point of view, lack of experience and forthright mode of expression as Sari but his story has a quicker pace and is more captivating than that of a 25-year-old woman’s puppy love. In spite of his coming from the country, Jack is wiser and more motivated to succeed than Sari. This young man successfully naviagates an unforgiving city that is a contradiction of high-rise apartments, shopping malls and seven-star hotels sprawling across a landscape of polluted rivers, crippled beggars and appalling poverty. His description of the workings of the nightclub scene sounded like Jakarta’s legendary Stadium of bygone years. At one point Jack’s story and Sari’s story intersect, giving more depth and empathy to the characters, deepening the plot and making the series of stories more cohesive.

“The General’s Story” is about a Chinese Indonesian man starting up a language school franchise during the economic crisis of the late 1990s. The author has lived in Indonesia for over 20 years and here he is obviously drawing upon his knowledge and many years’ experience running private English language schools: the scams of how to pay less commissions to headquarters, tricks in employing native speakers in order to increase profit margins and how to play the cat and mouse game with licensing authorities and the immigration department. Over time, the narrator – an ex-security intelligence officer – makes the shift from an undercover spy into a shrewd and unsmiling businessman in the private sector who holds a cynical view of his fellow man. Cold hearted, analytical and self-absorbed, he only helps people if he can get something out of them.

In this book, the writer’s colloquiallisms sound American although a few British expressions and stylistic niceties creep in like telly for TV, bugger all and brass farthing. Who but a UK citizen would ever know that “rodgering” means to have sex? Sometimes his fondness for clichés make for ponderous reading. After the manner of Holden Caufield, the characters have an honest and unpretentious way of expressing themselves, though their fine sensibilities and use of elevated vocabularies at times seem out of place in the tawdry environments in which they live and work.

Nesbit evokes scant tactile sense of the sounds, smells and colors of Indonesia. The content rather describes his characters’ emotions, motivations and observations. A few glaring historical and geographic inaccuracies should have been edited out: the Dutch didn’t occupy Indonesia for 350 years, the British didn’t kill tens of thousands of people in the Battle of Surabaya, Jembatan Merah wasn’t named after that famous battle and Java is not the largest island in this archipelagic nation of “over 1000 islands.”

I failed to see what the relationship is between the people and events in the stories and the title, subtitle and prurient cover. The title may be riding on the coattails of Twilight in Jakarta, though the stories possess nothing like the gravitas of that classic novel set in the Sukarno-era nor do they carry a message or embody a social conscience. Nevertheless, the writer skillfully uses the viewpoints of its different characters and shows how we all see events differently. Illustrating both the beauty and the less idyllic side of Indonesia, Twilight in Kuta is the ideal read for those wanting to escape from their normal 9 to 5 routines.

Twilight in Kuta: Love and Lies in Indonesia by David Nesbit, Monsoon Books 2018, ISBN 978-191-204-9288, paperback, 272 pages, dimensions: 12.7 cm x 20 cm.


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