Books Set In Indonesia: Indonesian Novels
Have you read any books set in Indonesia? Despite studying Indonesian at school for most of my younger years and it being my first introduction to a foreign culture; I’m sad to admit that I’ve not yet visited and I’ve barely explored the local literature.
But all of that is about to change! A friends’ marriage is giving me an excuse to visit this year and I’m excited to finally see this country I’ve only ever dreamt of. As usual, I’ve been looking for tales to accompany me on my travels.
Perhaps one of the most well-known Indonesian novels is This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer which I read it as part of my World Reading Challenge last year. It is the first in a quartet of novels called the Buru Quartet set at the end of Dutch colonial rule. A controversial novel, it was banned in 1981.
A very different kind of book is perhaps the most widely read book set in Indonesia, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This memoir of the authors’ trip around the world includes a stint in Bali. It sat on the New York Time Best Seller list for an incredible 187 weeks.
This post contains affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosures here.
Books Set In Indonesia: The Shortlist
If you want to skip the full list below, these are my picks for books set in Indonesia (which I’ll be packing!):
- Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
- Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
- The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata
- Home by Leila S Chudori
Books Set In Indonesia
Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company
by Multatuli, 1860
Max Havelaar – a Dutch civil servant in Java – burns with an insatiable desire to end the ill treatment and oppression inflicted on the native peoples by the colonial administration. Max is an inspirational figure, but he is also a flawed idealist whose vow to protect the Javanese from cruelty ends in his own downfall. In Max Havelaar, Multatuli (the pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker) vividly recreated his own experiences in Java and tellingly depicts the hypocrisy of those who gained from the corrupt coffee trade.
Sitti Nurbaya: A Love Unrealized
by Marah Roesli, 1922
This novel retains the poignancy that made it a modern Indonesian classic. Even to this day, the issues of injustice and indignities suffered by women that this novel raised continue to be debated throughout the country. Rich in description, dense with ironic foreboding and the inexorable workings of fate, this is Samsu and Sitti Nurbaya’s ill-fated love story.
Love and Death in Bali
by Vicki Baum, 1937
Vicki Baum’s evocative historical novel recounts the lives of peasants and nobles in colonial Bali, reared against a backdrop of bloodshed and cultural invasion. Dutch imperialism brings upheaval and revolution to the beautiful island, and the Balinese rebel in what would become a powerful and poignant example of symbolic resistance. A Tale from Bali culminates with the historic Battle of Badung, in which thousands of Balinese soldiers, clothed in white and armed only with daggers, threw themselves upon the merciless efficiency of the Dutch guns.
A House in Bali
by Colin McPhee, 1946
A House in Bali remains one of the most remarkable books ever written about the fabled island of Bali. This classic book tells the story of Balinese culture through a history of Balinese music. First published in 1947, it tells the story of the writer and composer Colin McPhee’s (1900–64) obsession with a music once unknown to the West, and of his journey to Bali to experience it firsthand.
The Ten Thousand Things
by Maria Dermoût, 1955
The Ten Thousand Things is a novel of shimmering strangeness—the story of Felicia, who returns with her baby son from Holland to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, to the house and garden that were her birthplace, over which her powerful grandmother still presides. There Felicia finds herself wedded to an uncanny and dangerous world, full of mystery and violence, where objects tell tales, the dead come and go, and the past is as potent as the present.
The Girl from the Coast
by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1962
Pramoedya’s The Girl From the Coast tells the story of a beautiful young woman from a fishing village who finds herself in an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat. Forced to leave her parents and home behind, she moves to the city to become the “lady” of her husband’s house. After she becomes pregnant, she learns that she is merely a “practice wife” who will not simply be discarded but will be separated from the child she carries.
This Earth of Mankind, Buru Quartet #1
by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1975
Minke is a young Javanese student of great intelligence and ambition. Living equally among the colonists and colonized of 19th-century Java, he battles against the confines of colonial strictures. It is his love for Annelies that enables him to find the strength to embrace his world. The other novels in this quartet include: Child of All Nations (1975), Footsteps (1985) and House of Glass (1988).
by Nh Dini, 1977
As an airhostess with the new Indonesian Airlines, Elisa is determined to establish her independence and find a place where she really feels she belongs. With a troubled family background and almost no knowledge of her past or ancestry, Elisa is searching for her true identity. If finding her real father proves a heartbreaking search, then perhaps marriage to the handsome Javanese man she has fallen deeply in love, will give her the sense of belonging and stability for which she yearns.
The Year of Living Dangerously
by Christopher J Koch, 1978
The year is 1965. The fiercely nationalistic government of the god-king Sukarno has brought Indonesia to the brink of chaos. Engulfed in the violence are Guy Hamilton, a Western journalist; Billy Kwan, his Chinese-Australian cameraman; and the young British woman they both love. Kwan’s disillusionment with his hero Sukarno leads him to desperate action, and a complex drama of loyalty and betrayal is played out in the eye of the political storm.
by Y.B. Mangunwijaya, 1981
The Weaverbirds, a landmark novel when first published, is a tale of both physical and spiritual struggle, spanning the formative days of Indonesian independence and the Indonesian oil crisis in the mid 1970s. Larasati, the precious daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Antana, and Setadewa, the army-brat son of Captain and Mrs Brajabasuki, are childhood playmates, but as adults, they find themselves on the opposite sides of the political spectrum. Although these two are very different individuals, their personal relationship offers guidance to survival in a chaotic world.
by Ahmad Tohari, 1982
Set in the tumultuous days of the mid 1960s, “The Dancer” describes a village community struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing world. It also provides readers with a ground-level view of the political turmoil and human tragedy leading up to and following the abortive Communist coup. This trilogy of novels traces the lives of two characters: Srintil, a dancer whose unwitting involvement with the region’s leftist propaganda machine sets her at odds with Rasus, the love of her life who embraces Islam and finds a career in the army.
by Ayu Utami, 1998
Saman is a story filtered through the lives of its feisty female protagonists and the enigmatic “hero” Saman. It is at once an exposé of the oppression of plantation workers in South Sumatra, a lyrical quest to understand the place of religion and spirituality in contemporary lives, a playful exploration of female sexuality and a story about love in all its guises, while touching on all of Indonesia’s taboos: extramarital sex, political repression and the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
by Dee Lestari, 2001
Supernova: The Knight, The Princess and the Falling Star presents a series of intertwined and unconventional love stories, straight and gay, with a bit of science and spirituality added to the mix. The major characters are young, urban, and technologically highly aware. They are caught up in major forms of contemporary social conflict.
Beauty Is a Wound
by Eka Kurniawan, 2002
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.
They Say I’m a Monkey
by Djenar Maesa Ayu, 2002
They Say I’m a Monkey is a collection of short-stories from the young Indonesian writer Djenar Maesa Ayu. In the eleven stories, Djenar turns footnotes of urban Jakarta life, and the inner lives of the city’s inhabitants, into stories that keep in their narratives both the magic and the realism of the place. Stories that will crawl out from the margins into the centre of your conscience.
by Eka Kurniawan, 2004
A wry, affecting tale set in a small town on the Indonesian coast, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families and of Margio, a young man ordinary in all particulars except that he conceals within himself a supernatural female white tiger. The inequities and betrayals of family life coalesce around and torment this magical being. An explosive act of violence follows, and its mysterious cause is unraveled as events progress toward a heartbreaking revelation.
by Dee Lestari, 2004
For as long as she can remember, Kugy has loved to write. Whimsical stories are her passion, along with letters full of secret longings that she folds into paper boats and sets out to sea. Now that she’s older, she dreams of following her heart and becoming a true teller of tales, but she decides to get a “real job” instead and forget all about Keenan, the guy who makes her feel as if she’s living in one of her own fairy tales.
by Djenar Maesa Ayu, 2005
Her name is Nayla. My fellow counselors dislike her. They perceive her as arrogant because she comes from a rich and famous family, thereby refusing to get along with other people in this rehabilitation center. She has been living here for a week. Her behaviour hasn’t changed. When she is alone, she laughs constantly to herself while twisting the locks of her hair and biting her fingernails. —Ibu Lina
The Rainbow Troops
by Andrea Hirata, 2005
Originally written in Bahasa, The Rainbow Troops was first published in 2005 and sold a record-breaking five million copies in Indonesia. The novel tells the inspiring and closely autobiographical tale of the trials and tribulations that the ten motley students (nicknamed the Rainbow Troops) and two teachers from Muhammadiyah Elementary School on Belitong Island, Indonesia, undergo to ensure the continuation of the children’ s education. The poverty-stricken school suffers the constant threat of closure by government officials, greedy corporations, natural disasters and the students’ own lack of self-confidence. The story is written from the perspective of Ikal, who is six years old when the novel opens.
Eat Pray Love
by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2006
Around the time Elizabeth Gilbert turned thirty, she went through an early-onslaught midlife crisis. She had everything an educated, ambitious American woman was supposed to want – a husband, a house, a successful career. But instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed with panic, grief, and confusion. To recover from all this, Gilbert took a radical step. In order to give herself the time and space to find out who she really was and what she really wanted, she got rid of her belongings, quit her job, and undertook a yearlong journey around the world – all alone. In Bali, she studied the art of balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence. She became the pupil of an elderly medicine man and also fell in love the best way – unexpectedly.
The Persimmon Tree
by Bryce Courtenay, 2007
The Persimmon Tree is unashamedly a love story. I’ve always wanted to write one but until now have been afraid to do so. The reason is simple enough: most men in my experience have very little idea of what really goes on in a woman’s heart or head. Now, at the age of 74, I just might know enough and have sufficient courage to write on the subject – the way of a man with a woman, of a woman with a man.
My story is set in the Pacific, although not in the paradise we’ve always been led to believe exists there. It is 1942 in Java and the Japanese are invading the islands like a swarm of locusts.
The Land of Five Towers
by Ahmad Fuadi, 2009
Alif had never set foot outside of West Sumatra. He passed his childhood days searching for fallen durian fruit in the jungle, playing soccer on rice paddies, and swimming in the blue waters of Lake Maninjau. His mother wants him to attend an Islamic boarding school, a pesantren, while he dreams of public high school. Halfheartedly, he follows his mother’s wishes. He finds himself on a grueling three-day bus ride from Sumatra to Madani Pesantren (MP) in a remote village on Java.
Map of the Invisible World
by Tash Aw, 2009
During their years together in the orphanage Johan keeps a constant vigil over his little brother Adam – he’s all he’s got. But they are placed in different adoptive homes and lose all contact. Then, in the summer of 1964, unrest is in the air as post-colonial Indonesia slides gradually towards civil war.
Of Bees and Mist
by Erick Setiawan, 2009
Of Bees and Mist is an engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality.
Meridia grows up in a lonely home until she falls in love with Daniel at age sixteen. Soon, they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her charming husband’s family—unaware that they harbor dark mysteries of their own. As Meridia struggles to embrace her life as a young bride, she discovers long-kept secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink.
Daughters of Papua
by Anindita S Thayf, 2009
Pum is a loyal old dog who can smell colors. Along with Kwee, a pig with attitude, and seven-year-old Leksi, they tell the story of Mabel. As a young girl of the Dani tribe in Papua, Dutch missionaries take her to the city under the pretense of adopting her. Mabel quickly adapts to being domestic help and is eager to learn, but her request to attend school is denied. When Mabel returns to village life years later, her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Leksi, join her. The women work in the fields all day long, and Mabel sells the fruits and vegetables in the open market.
A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul (Inspector Singh Investigates #2)
by Shamini Flint, 2009
Inspector Singh, everyone’s favorite portly and wheezing homicide detective, is still recovering from his last case when terrorists set off a bomb on the neighboring island of Bali. With Singapore’s anti-terrorist team busy defending the home front, Inspector Singh’s bosses ship him to Bali to assist with the investigation. Unfortunately, Inspector Singh has as much experience with terrorism as he does with proper diet and exercise – none.
by Kathryn Bonella, 2009
This book, Hotel Kerobokan, is internationally titled Hotel K. Welcome to Hotel Kerobokan, the ironic nickname for Kerobokan Jail, Bali’s most notorious prison, and home to a procession of the infamous and the tragic: the Bali Bombers, Gold Coast beautician Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine, among many others.
The Years of the Voiceless
by Okky Madasari, 2010
Marni is an illiterate Javanese woman who still practices ancestor worship. Through her offerings she finds her gods and puts forth her hopes. She knows nothing of the God brought in from that faraway land. Rahayu is Marni’s daughter, part of a new generation shaped by education and an easier life. She is a firm believer in God and in common sense. She stands against the ancestors, even against her own mother. To Marni, Rahayu is a soulless being. And to Rahayu, Marni is a sinner. Each lives according to her own creed, with nothing in common.
by Maggie Tiojakin, 2011
Nicky F. Rompa is a twenty-something Indonesian immigrant who comes to America with a bag of unresolved issues. To get away from his abusive father back home, Nicky goes on to stay with his relatives in Boston. Pretty soon, it seems as though he is living the dream: he meets a beautiful Russian girl, goes on road trips, gets a job, and finally experiences the America he had only seen on TV before. Yet, like any dream, it ends. And he is left with the choices of either going home or sticking around while hoping — against all odds — that the dream will return.
9 Summers 10 Autumns
by Iwan Setyawan, 2011
It is the story of the son of a minibus driver from Batu City who becomes a company director in New York City.
My father is a minibus driver who can’t even remember his own birthday. His highest education was the eighth grade. My mother couldn’t finish her elementary school education. She is the perfect mirror for humbleness. I have four sisters and they are the strongest pillars in my life. Because we grew up poor, our toys were school textbooks; and we would work for extra money selling food during Ramadan and painting wooden dolls at a shop near our little house; or help our neighbor sell vegetables at the market. Education was the key that changed our lives; pulled us out of poverty. But it was the love of a family that saved us all.
by Leila S Chudori, 2012
Leila S. Chudori is Indonesia’s most prominent female journalist. Home is her debut novel and won Indonesia’s most important literary prize in 2013. An epic saga of “families and friends entangled in the cruel snare of history” (Time magazine), Home combines political repression and exile with a spicy mixture of love, family, and food, alternating between Paris and Jakarta in the time between Suharto’s 1965 rise to power and downfall in 1998, further illuminating Indonesia’s tragic twentieth-century history popularized by the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing.
The Paradise Guest House
by Ellen Sussman, 2013
It starts as a trip to paradise. Sent on assignment to Bali, Jamie, an American adventure guide, imagines spending weeks exploring the island’s lush jungles and pristine white sand beaches. Yet three days after her arrival, she is caught in Bali’s infamous nightclub bombings, which irreparably change her life and leave her with many unanswered questions.
The Moonlit Garden
by Corina Bomann, 2013
Lilly Kaiser had come to terms with her solitary, uncomplicated life after becoming a young widow. So when a stranger delivers an old violin to her Berlin antiques shop and tells Lilly it belongs to her, she’s completely bewildered. Why should she be the one to inherit such an exquisite instrument? Together with her best friend, Ellen, and handsome musicologist Gabriel Thornton, Lilly sets out to explore the violin’s legacy. From England to Italy to Indonesia, she follows its winding trail. Along the way, she learns of Rose Gallway, a beautiful woman of English and Sumatran descent who lived among Sumatra’s lush gardens more than a hundred years earlier.
by Giles Milton, 2014
The tiny island of Run is an insignificant speck in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago–remote, tranquil, and now largely ignored. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, Run’s harvest of nutmeg turned it into the most lucrative of the Spice Islands, precipitating a fierce and bloody battle between the all-powerful Dutch East India Company and a small band of ragtag British adventurers led by the intrepid Nathaniel Courthope. The outcome of the fighting was one of the most spectacular deals in history: Britain ceded Run to Holland, but in return was given another small island, Manhattan.
Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation
by Elizabeth Pisani, 2015
Declaring independence in 1945, Indonesia said it would “work out the details of the transfer of power etc. as soon as possible.” With over 300 ethnic groups spread across over 13,500 islands, the world’s fourth most populous nation has been working on that “etc.” ever since. Author Elizabeth Pisani traveled 26,000 miles in search of the links that bind this disparate nation.
The Original Dream
by Nukila Amal, 2017
For Maya, history is like a dream, and her dreams are like a history of her life and how it relates to others. Effortlessly defying and calling into question time and space, Maya inhabits fantastical realities filled with shamans, romantic longing, a daughter’s struggles, and a flying dragon. Lyrically flowing between Maya’s multiple realities, The Original Dream is the story of a young independent Indonesian woman trying to break free from cultural and social conventions while also searching for her place among family and friends.
The Birdwoman’s Palate
by Laksmi Pamuntjak, 2018
In this exhilarating culinary novel, a woman’s road trip through Indonesia becomes a discovery of friendship, self, and other rare delicacies. Aruna is an epidemiologist dedicated to food and avian politics. One is heaven, the other earth. The two passions blend in unexpected ways when Aruna is asked to research a handful of isolated bird flu cases reported across Indonesia. While it’s put a crimp in her aunt’s West Java farm, and made her own confit de canard highly questionable, the investigation does provide an irresistible opportunity.
Apple and Knife
by Intan Paramaditha, 2018
Inspired by horror fiction, myths and fairy tales, Apple and Knife is an unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world. These short fictions set in the Indonesian everyday—in corporate boardrooms, in shanty towns, on dangdut stages—reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface. Sometimes wacky and always engrossing, this is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.
What do you think of these books set in Indonesia?
How many of these books set in Indonesia have you read? Are you planning a trip to to Indonesia sometime soon? Have some great books set in Indonesia that I’ve missed? Have any travel tips for readers (or myself!) when visiting Indonesia? I’d love to hear about more about your travels and tips for books set in Indonesia in the comments below!
Looking for more reading ideas?
If you’re looking for more books set around Asia, see some of these popular posts:
- Books Set in India: Indian Novels
- Books Set in China and Hong Kong: Chinese Novels
- Books Set in Japan: Japanese Novels