Toronto-based, Australian-Indonesian-Canadian author Michelle Kadarusman (The Theory of Hummingbirds) sets her moving and dramatic sophomore novel in the impoverished villages of Jakarta. Fourteen-year-old Nia’s mother has died in childbirth and her bapak (father) is drowning his sorrows in arak (the local moonshine). Nia, meanwhile, is left to care for her younger brother and keep the family fed. Nia longs to attend school to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, but she has too many adult responsibilities and she cannot afford the tuition.
When Nia narrowly escapes a deadly bus accident, a local scoundrel proclaims she has magical powers and convinces her to charge double for her popular banana fritters – a plan that would help her save money for school. But word gets around that it’s all a scam and Nia’s customers turn on her.
Kadarusman presents a teen with very few options who is nonetheless striving for something better. Nia challenges her best friend who runs drugs for cash, chastises her father for drinking away their savings, stands up to corrupt police, and rejects an arranged marriage – the one surefire escape from the slums.
Instead, Nia finds strength and inspiration in Javanese folk tales. She writes her own stories about Princess Dewi Kadita, goddess of the sea, and shares them with her brother. This approach provides a beguiling secondary narrative in which Princess Dewi, like Nia, rises to every challenge despite being cast out and alone.
Girl of the Southern Sea is an enjoyable, brisk, and emotionally charged novel that tells difficult stories inspired by the realities of girls in Indonesia. It is a sharp and politically attuned work that will give readers further appreciation for the value of access to education, health care, and justice.