Reviews, Vol. 4.1, March 2010
Simon & Schuster, 2009
Hardcover, 404 pp., $25
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Laden in the heady atmosphere of the contemporary fairy-tale, with more than a passing nod to magical realism, Erick Setiawan’s debut novel Of Bees and Mist is an elegantly rendered work of craftsmanship. In a tale of haunted families beleagured by personal and spiritual flaws made manifest, the language is instantly bewitching. Setiawan weaves a saga of characters and lives into a complex tapestry. Few contemporary tales have been achieved with such intriguing mastery.
The storyline itself is not unfamiliar: a family is riddled with betrayals and deceit by one of their own, whose poison infects them all and invites discontent. However, it is the artful and intricate way that Setiawan develops his story that is stunning. He writes with a pacing that has the sense of rapidity, but is really the result of a series of dazzling, interconnected subplots leading up to major revelations throughout the novel. The pacing is lively and the author has a way of creating continual interest.
One of the author’s finest skills is in his character development. He has the ability to elicit strong emotional reactions from the reader; you will easily find yourself loathing, adoring, and pitying the book’s main players. And it is in the nuances and traits of the characters where the author’s greatest talent resonates: he has a way, not only of transforming pain, joy, loss, and celebration into lush, atmospheric renderings, but also of taking those same emotions and making them concretely manifest. Metaphor is made patent. There is an honesty to the writing: those who are good-hearted and whose intentions are pure see their lives bear fruit; and those whose intent is self-serving or is to see others suffer ultimately wither in the end. There is a lot of needless suffering throughout, which makes the book sometimes difficult to read, and pain comes to the undeserving; but there is ultimately the satisfaction of justice for those who deserve it.
Amidst the rich landscape, Setiawan evinces a rare sensitivity to the full cycles of emotions; that is not to say that the book is rich with emotional melodrama; it is not, but reads rather more like a fairy tale made flesh. Emotions often run high, but there is balance: where there is a scene of decay, there is soon relief in the verdant natural world; where a character dies undeservedly, there is measurable peace in the afterlife. Likewise, a beautiful wedding is not without its dark undercurrents.
It is ultimately a magical world, where anger and ill intent manifest themselves in the form of buzzing insects, infidelity is accompanied by a misty shroud, and the very flowers of the earth part to welcome their owners. The description is consistently rich and vivid, as the following excerpt demonstrates:
Malin’s wedding took place eight days after Meridia’s twenty-fourth birthday. In keeping with the bride’s favorite color, the groom’s father had a massive orange tent erected […] Swaddling the canvas walls were twenty layers of orange silk. Draping the conical ceiling like waterfalls at sunset was sheer orange organza. A constellation of candles floated above the two hundred guests, reflecting beads and shimmering spangles on their merry faces.
The end is satisfying without being too pat, and the reader finishes with the sense of having been transported. I am interested to read Erick Setiawan’s other work, but will have to wait until the completion of his second novel, which he is reportedly currently developing. But it will be worth the wait; Setiawan is one of the most exciting debut voices in the English language, and I greatly anticipate his forthcoming work.