Beauty is a Wound was September’s Babbling Book Club selection; drawn in completely by the cover, I decided to read along.
The epic novel Beauty Is a Wound combines history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor, and romance in a sweeping polyphony. The beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead. Kurniawan’s gleefully grotesque hyperbole functions as a scathing critique of his young nation’s troubled past: the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million “Communists,” followed by three decades of Suharto’s despotic rule.
Beauty Is a Wound astonishes from its opening line: “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years…” Drawing on local sources—folk tales and the all-night shadow puppet plays, with their bawdy wit and epic scope—and inspired by Melville and Gogol, Kurniawan’s distinctive voice brings something luscious yet astringent to contemporary literature.
I can honestly say, I have never read a book like this before! Where to even begin to describe this book…. perhaps with a warning: Beauty is a Wound is a satire – it talks about sensitive subjects in such a way which some people may find offensive (particularly, the topics of rape and murder), so if you cannot read about these subjects in this satirical fashion, please do not read this book. Although I will say, these themes are used in such a way, you just cannot take them seriously, but I accept that to some, these topics should never be used in a comical way.
Beauty is a Wound is filled with dark humour and absurdities; it’s not to be taken too seriously but rather enjoyed as an amusing/entertaining read. It will teach you a little of Indonesia’s history but it’s filled with exaggerated statements that are not to be taken literally. It also contains some of the strangest characters you’ll ever find in fiction. Dewi Ayu is a prostitute and she’ll be damned if she’s not going to be the best prostitute in the whole of the country, she gives births to three beautiful daughters and this novel follows their lives as they fall in love [and experience heartbreak], marry and have their own children. We then follow their children’s lives, it’s all so bizarre! Dewi Ayu’s fourth daughter, ironically named Beauty, is the ugliest woman in all the land, a beauty so grotesque, it is highly, no holds barred, mocked throughout the book.
And, wow, is there a lot of death – never in a chilling way – and these characters don’t always stay dead! Dewi Ayu is not the only one who knows how to rise from a grave, so expect quite a few ghosts. And the odd curse or two! Just expect the unexpected! There are quite a lot of characters in this novel, but they are introduced in a way where you never feel lost and you always know who’s who.
I just don’t know how to summarise this novel – it was an experience! It was dark, it was brazen, it was comical, it was straight up outlandish! I actually found the lives of this family to be quite interesting, the fate that was beholden to them because of their beauty, and that, along with its brazenness, keep me intrigued throughout. I would have liked Beauty to feature more in the story as we only really hear about her life at the beginning and the end of the novel, it would have been nice to see how her life compared with her beautiful sisters throughout instead of at the end.
This book, despite the themes, was easy reading. I was shocked, appalled and outraged most of the time, but in a comical way – it was just so bizarre, I couldn’t take it seriously. I honestly don’t know what else to say, except, beauty is indeed a wound!