Over the Water by William Lane

An unexpected sense of menace and melancholy pervades this debut novel about cultural difference and identity, set in Indonesia’s third-largest city. Following in the footsteps of his enigmatic older brother, 23-year-old Joe arrives in Bandung to teach English and immediately ‘struggles with that imposter feeling’. As a seemingly innocent outsider, he quickly becomes embroiled in the lives of various women, both foreign and local. His relationships form with an accelerated intimacy and he begins to question the possibility of romantic love and the notion of freedom, leaving him feeling uncertain of his place in the world. It’s this sense of displacement that William Lane captures so well.

Lane has lived in Indonesia and his first-hand knowledge of language, customs and place lend this book an authentic and compelling voice. Lane’s settings are lush, dark and richly described, and his characters are moody and intense, hinting at the mythic power that bubbles underneath Javanese culture, always threatening to explode. This is not the fluffy, loved-up Indonesia of Eat, Pray, Love, but a darker, more intimate portrait of a complex society steeped in religion and superstition.

Anyone who has ever taught English overseas will instantly recognise Joe’s colleagues who are a mishmash of accents and attitudes. Wavering between a sickly spiritual gushiness and a visceral disgust for the local culture, they each confront the reader with uncomfortable questions about the challenges of meaningful cultural exchange. Lane’s depiction of the limits and expectations placed on women, both here and in Indonesian society, are especially poignant.

This is a refreshingly original exploration of the gulfs and bridges between Australia and Indonesia, one that goes beyond the superficiality of massages, temples and sunset cocktails. The final pages are a sobering reminder that, no matter where you live in the world, freedom often comes at a price.

Sally Keighery is a freelance reviewer.