Troppo by Madelaine Dickie

‘The first story I hear about my new boss is in a brothel in Bandar Lampung.’

November 2004.  Penny, in her early twenties, is taking some time out — from life in Perth, away from her boyfriend Josh, an escape from responsibility.  She’s in Sumatra where she’s about to start work for Shane at his coastal resort.  Penny spent a year in Bali as a teenager, she’s a surfer, keen to surf when she’s not working.

But the remote village of Batu Batur is not the Bali of Penny’s teenage years. This is the period just after the Bali and Denpasar bombings, just before the Boxing Day Tsunami. Islam is observed more strictly here, foreigners are viewed with suspicion.  Plenty of people warn Penny about working with Shane, but she’s keen to earn the huge bonus he has promised her if she works for six months.

Penny doesn’t see herself as privileged, but relative to the Indonesians she meets she is.  She is also caught between cultures: wanting to respect Indonesian customs but feeling restricted by the constraints placed on women.  Penny surfs with the expat Matt, spends time in an even more remote village with Cahyati (the niece of the woman who manages the bungalows where she stays while waiting to start her job with Shane). And there’s a continual undercurrent in relation to Shane: he’s not liked or trusted.

‘It’s funny, you always think of the other as being in relation to yourself.  You never imagine that you could be that other.’

What will Penny do?  Does she know what she is searching for?  Can she find it in Indonesia?  There are several themes here: first world privilege competes with guilt, contrasting lifestyles and opportunities. The resentment that tourists can generate, while bringing much needed income.  Penny can see some of the problems for locals in Indonesia and the impact on village life.

While I had some limited sympathy for Penny, my greater interest in this novel was the contrast between cultures and expectations.  I was more worried about Cahyati than I was about Penny.  And yet, Penny’s journey provided an entry into Indonesian life that would not have been possible for a different character.  This was Ms Dickie’s debut novel, and it is well worth reading.

‘Australians think they own Bali.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith