Barbara Haines Howett’s eleven interlinked stories take us into the lives of ex-pat women in Indonesia in the early 1970s. There are two worlds to explore here: colorful Indonesia and the claustrophobic world of corporate wives–before feminism made its mark. The focus is on the western characters, but the lives of their Indonesian servants intrude from time to time.
These are not happy tales of exploration in an exotic country. Most of the women are there because of their husbands’ work. Bored, with nothing to do, they form their own tiny hierarchy, bully each other and their servants, and along the way sometimes learn something about themselves. A few even learn something about Indonesia, but most see the country as a temporary abode, not a culture to be explored. They’re there to support their husbands, help them get needed promotions, take care of them after their work. When they do get involved in the world outside, it often leads to disaster.
The constrained lives women often led in the 1970s seem shocking now. Lexie’s story shines a spotlight on just how devastating life could be for a woman trapped in a loveless marriage and a foreign country. Outwardly, the ideal “overseas wife,” Lexie slowly falls apart under the harsh words of her husband–“Every time she felt good about herself, Buck took it away from her.” She cooks in their hotel room, to “fudge on their hotel expense account” and save enough money so the family can go home after this job is over (the American men are training Indonesians to take over their off-shore oil wells), takes care of the children, and falls apart under the strain of being “the most adjusted” company expat.
From time to time one or other of the women venture out into Jakarta or the surrounding country. Katherine–whose husband does not work for the oil company–travels with him to a Dutch convent, where “a manicured landscape of green and glossy tea plants beckoned.” Some become involved in the lives of their servants (rarely with happy outcomes), and through those interactions we become aware of Indonesian culture and traditions.
The Borobudur of the title is the hotel where the women (and their families) live while waiting for housing. In its rarified atmosphere cliques easily form. Maddy finds herself excluded from the group dubbed “The Herd”–a group of wives. A Midwestern innocent she sees her life through movies. In the Borobudur, she “would be Lauren Bacall, or maybe Myrna Loy.” Alas, life is not so simple, and she falls under the spell of the handsome Belgian, Tomas, who turns out to be something less than a leading man. Maddy is the only lady with two stories in the collection, so we learn more about her than the others–including the life she left behind in the U.S. Her second story, the last, rounds out the stories of the ladies, in a vicious game of “truth or dare,” and suggests some rapprochement between at least some expats and their temporary new home.
You’ll find interesting characters, in a well-conceived world. Each short story focuses on one woman while shining a sidelight on her fellow ex-pats. While individual women move towards self-awareness, for the group, not much seems to change.
Reviewed by Brit Nowlan for IndieReader