Sunbirds by Mirandi Riwoe

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Set in West Java in 1941, Sunbirds is a tale of love and duty elegantly told by an author who was the winner of the 2020 Queensland Literary Prize and the ARA Historical Novel Prize for her first book Stone Sky Gold Mountain.

The van Hoorn family – Dutch colonials –  are the owners of a tea plantation which employs numerous Sundanese people [the indigenous peoples] both in the plantation and as servants in their palatial home.  Anna is the daughter of the family and along with Diah – the housekeeper – are the key protagonists in this beautifully rendered story of the tension between duty and love.  But as the gathering storm clouds of war encroach on the family’s idyllic lifestyle, fractures begin to develop across the plantation.  Theodor – the paterfamilias – is often ensconced in his study with local men listening to the radio as it describes the march of the Japanese forces towards Singapore and West Java.  Diah’s brother Sigit on the other hand is almost welcoming of the Japanese forces as he believes their coming will free the Sundanese people from the yoke of Dutch colonisation.

A visitor – Mattijs Huisman – proposes to Anna.  Although she had planned since she was ten to travel to Europe and study, the war in Europe had demolished those plans and now marriage to Mattijs seems a fine alternative.  But upsetting everything is the appearance of Sigit who is seen by Anna’s brother Willem as ‘part of an inlander rabble, trying to rouse up nationalist support’ [66].  Sigit believes that the inlanders should run the country and the land be handed back to the local people.  Anna who up to now just saw him as Diah’s young brother begins to fantasise about him – ‘the feel of (his) mouth on her skin’ [155] and begins a liaison with him in spite of her engagement to Mattijs.

In counterpoint to Anna’s romances, there is a second narrative running through the novel.  Headed Nona Fientje de Vries – A Tragic Story That Really Happened in Bandoeng, this novelette in chapters dispersed through the book tells the story of Fientje a young women who was murdered.  Fientje’s death is barely acknowledged by the family but it obsesses Anna as she increasingly believes that there is a connection between her and Fientje.  Fientje, because of her illegitimate birth, drifted into prostitution which eventually led to her death.  It is a tragic story exacerbated by the blood connection with the van Hoorn family.

The implicit racism and the strict cultural demarcation between the colonial Dutch and the indigenous population is set out in microcosm in the van Hoorn household.  Anna must dress appropriately so that she will not be mistaken for a ‘kampung Indo’ [113] – that is, a person of mixed Dutch and indigenous descent.  This demarcation has led some segments of the local population to welcome the approaching Japanese army as liberators who would break down the colonial structures – which essentially is what happened when the army marched into West Java in 1942.

While essentially a love story, Sunbirds is set in a pivotal point in the history of West Java.  The tensions between the colonial Dutch and the indigenous people – played out against the threat of Japanese invasion – determine much of the interactions between the characters.  The relationship between Anna and Sigit, as much as each desires it, is untenable.

The Epilogue – set fifty years later in 1992 – brings the narrative to a fine conclusion as it updates the reader on the circumstances of each of the key protagonists Anna, Diah and Sigit.

Sunbirds is a delicate and beautiful story set in a country with which we are not entirely familiar.  The complexity of colonisation and the yearning of the indigenous people for self-governance are sensitively realised as a backdrop to the conflict between love and duty.  The characters readily engage the reader’s understanding as they face an imminent invasion and the destruction of their social world.

Well recommended.



by Mirandi Riwoe


ISBN 978 070226 586 0

$32.99; 320pp


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