Of Bees And Mist by Erick Setiawan

When I first saw this book, I was curious. Partially because Erick Setiawan is, of course, Indonesian. Another thing is because he wrote this book in English instead of in Indonesian. Not to mention the positive reviews it gets and that it’s his first novel.

I mean, really? What’s the appeal?

So, of course, I hunted the English version.

Not that I don’t respect the translator or my own native language, really, but I just thought that a book is best read in its native language. Meaning the language in which it’s originally written. And since the book is written in English, so I tried to restrain myself not to buy the Indonesian translation. (I’m curious, though, so I might gonna read the Indonesian translation as well soon.)

Of Bees and Mist is basically a more modern, and more complicated version of Romeo and Juliet. That’s one way to see it.

Under the title on the front cover, it is written: “Three strong women. Two feuding families. One singular story of enchantment.”

The three strong women are obviously a referent to the main character–Meridia, her mother-in-law–Eva, and her mother–Ravenna. Although other than those three women, there are other women as well, who are just as tough, like Meridia’s sisters-in-law, Malin and Permony.

Meridia is the only child of Ravenna and Gabriel, who used to be so much in love with each other until “a cold wind” blew into the house and never left ever since. Hence, Meridia’s father, Gabriel, started looking someplace else to find warmth that he could not find in Ravenna anymore. Every evening when Gabriel left the house, a yellow mist would appear, followed by a blue mist in the dawn when Gabriel returned to the house.

For several times in the week, a yellow-eyed ghost would also come at night to haunt the house. Later it would be revealed that the ghost is a manifestation of Ravenna’s anger and frustration toward Gabriel’s affair.

In the novel, it is revealed that Meridia didn’t really have quite a happy childhood. Ever since the cold invaded the house, Ravenna always took refuge in the shelter called ‘forgetfulness’ where she would seem to care for nothing in the world but her cooking. She spent major times in the kitchen, cooking for too many food in which would later be delivered and shared to the neighbor. One thing she never shared, though, is the breakfast  she made for Gabriel because they had this unspoken pact where she and Gabriel would not communicate at all anytime (ever since the cold, yes) but he would always return from his affair on time to eat Ravenna’s breakfast.

To add Meridia’s misery during childhood, Gabriel always showed this hostile attitude toward his own child, letting her into thinking that her father never loved her, and even hated her.

The first time Meridia felt actually happy was when she met her BFF-to be, Hannah. However, throughout the novel, Hannah seemed to be described as imaginary since Meridia (and later her son) seemed to be the only one who could see her. But Hannah didn’t always stay. So Meridia was miserable again. At least until she finally met her husband-to be, Daniel. I chuckled the first time I read the description of Daniel, though:

‎”Eighteen and handsome, he was carefree by nature, and rarely distressed, considered himself immune to temper. He was loyal and generous. He saw no faults in those he loved, and despite his share of skepticisms, believed the world a just and harmonious place.”

Oh yes, he was charming.

Despite Gabriel’s protest, Meridia married Daniel nonetheless, with Ravenna’s help. This was probably the first time ever Meridia felt her mother’s affection.

Escaping to her in-laws house, Meridia soon discovered that she simply moved from a haunted grim house to another one full of anger and bees. Her mother-in-law’s bees, to be exact, for she soon found out (with the help of her sister-in-law Malin) that her mother-in-law was nothing but a backstabber who loved to conspire and deceive others.

The main conflicts throughout the book is basically the dispute between Meridia and Eva, where sometimes got Daniel torn between two side, especially since he was raised and taught into thinking that he’s supposed to be totally obedient to his mother. Hence, it was not until at least the second half of the book that Daniel started to question her mother’s integrity.

The side story includes the life of Daniel’s sisters, Malin and Permony, as well as the love story of Meridia’s parents–what’s behind the cold wind, and how they ended up toward the end of the book.

A review I once read put it that “Setiawan has a supreme grasp of dramatic tension: how to manipulate the reader’s sensibilities and ultimately shift their beliefs and sympathies from where they lay initially.”

Oh yes. That’s true.

I mean, the only constant emotion I have for a character is probably hatred toward Eva, but even that changes.

The story definitely got plenty of dramas here and there, which made me think whether I was actually reading a written version of Indonesian Sinetron.

FYI, Indonesian Sinetron is a TV series, mostly talks about teenage love and life, and it always got plenty of conspiracies with never ending, if not immortal, antagonist. Not to mention the dramatic effect when the protagonist cried or when two enemies met each other face to face where they would stare at each other for what seems like forever, added with this overdramatic zooming on each character’s face over and over along with this never ending drum as the sound background. Oh yes, that happened, my friend, for like at least 1 minute before they finally take an action and start stabbing each other.

I mean, really? So many dramas here and there–really, Americans? You actually love overdramatic dramas?

But I kept reading, of course.

Now, as Erick Setiawan was born in a Chinese Indonesian family–and as I was raised partially in a Javanese family and partially in a Chinese Indonesian family as well–I think it was pretty obvious what Daniel’s family actually portrayed. Of course, this could also be a stereotype, if not racism, as well as the fact that fiction is always a fiction, never a fact.

One thing is the portray of extended families in Meridia’s family as well as Daniel’s, where the bride would later move to her in-laws family, or vice versa, where they would live together with the whole family, although the story didn’t really include grandparents or great-grandparents. But in most American novels or English novels I read, most characters would rarely stay together with their parents unless their jobless (sorry, that’s the impression I got). Of course this might not be true, but still, most characters would find a place of their own–and apartment, a flat, or just a small nice and comfy bungalow.

Another thing is the portray of a Chinese Indonesian, if not Chinese, family, where each of the family members, especially the eldest son, would always be expected to help and maintain family’s business–in this case, a jewelry business (a typical Chinese Indonesian family business as well). As soon as Meridia moved to her in-laws’ house, she was expected to do the house chores, and definitely, served her husband (definitely no liberte, egalite and fraternite in the house).

The most common stereotype is, definitely, the intrigues inside the family as well, and in most Chinese (Indonesian) family, where money matters the most, which lead to deception to get most profits and money and to be as greedy as possible. Eva definitely got this very trait where she would always ask for her shares even from her son’s shop and would criticize and mocked Meridia for trying to get and eat the healthiest food for the baby in her womb, in which Eva would later referred as “a waste of a lot of money.” Not to mention she’d previously stole Meridia’s wedding gift and told her that she gave them all to charity, hence, left Meridia with very little things. Of course Meridia later found out that those luxurious wedding gifts were never given to any charity, which lead to a conclusion that Eva had been keeping it for herself. Yet she barely spent it, for God’s sakes!

Can you imagine how much drama it would be only with such a horrible mother-in-law?

Of course, to make it clear again, those could only be a stereotype or even racism toward Chinese Indonesian, but believe it or not, that actually happened. Those stuffs written in the book–what Eva always did to irritate and control her family with the bees–sound so horrible and you’d probably think, “Really? How could there ever be someone so evil?”

Oh, believe me, there are.

And those stuffs really happen, I assure you.

But I suppose that’s a part of the charm of the book for that definitely contribute a lot the intenseness of the emotion throughout the book. I guess it got a bit boring halfway, when Meridia and Daniel finally settled down in their own place, away from Eva’s interference and everything seemed so peaceful and quiet, and it went on for quite some time that you’d sometimes read and read and wondering whether there wouldn’t really anything significant anymore afterwards.

But by the end of the book, I got definitely fascinated and charmed by the story, and I decided that if this book is really a written version of a Sinetron, this must be a very fine one. And definitely not any Indonesian Sinetron industry should ever got their hands on the book for they would definitely exaggerate so many stuffs every two seconds.

True, hereby I would like to declare that I definitely am not a big fan of Sinetron.

Of course, related to what Lamott said about how writing tends to make you become a better reader, I tried to savor every details of description Setiawan used to describe his imaginary world of the book, and to me, those feel really vivid. The symbolism of the bees and mist definitely add the mystique sense of the story, yet those aren’t supposed to be really hard to be understood by the readers.

I love how Setiawan seemed to take his reader to this imaginary world of his where illogical things happen to each of the character, which make it even more extraordinary and wondrous, yet at the same time, the emotions feel so real and lively.

To me this is definitely worth-reading, although you might need to hang on and try to bear with the dramas presented if you’re not really a big fan of dramas, but I would totally recommend this book to anyone who’s interested.

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Published by

Laksmi

An MA student at Waseda University, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyo, Japan. An avid reader. A language geek as well. And a book hoarder.

6 thoughts on “Of Bees And Mist by Erick Setiawan”

  1. reading your review is very tempting, but I’m trying to avoid it because I want to get the english version myself. how do you define the genre? romance? surrealism? fantasy?

    1. Hmmm, it’s definitely a romance, to me. A “romeo and juliet” kind… A bit of surrealist as well, perhaps, because Setiawan created a complete different reality, a mix of the real world and a bit of a fantasy (the “mist,” the “bees,” and the “prophets, or the “spirits”). Oh, you could get the English version from bookdepository.co.uk! I got mine there (because finding one here is not that easy). It’s free delivery around the globe, including Indonesia ;)

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