March: “Beauty is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan

Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

Our March 2016 Book of the Month

I have been on a quest to find a great epic novel to sink my teeth into for some time and the March Book of the Month Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan is the holy literary grail for which I have been searching. In the tradition of favored family sagas such as The Thornbirds, Birds Without Wings, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Midnight’s Children, Kurniawan simultaneously develops the multigenerational story of individuals and the history of a nation. This Indonesian novel was recently translated into English by Annie Tucker. She captured the unique West Javanese voice of one of Indonesia’s most famous novelists. Tucker won the Pen/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation.

The center of the novel is Dewi Ayu, a prostitute who is part Dutch and part Indonesian and rises from her grave on the first page. The story of her and her four daughters is a witty, bawdy and political nod to the Javanese traditions of oral storytelling, folk tales, and wayang the art of shadow puppetry. Starting during the years of Dutch colonialism the epic story tells the history of Indonesia you may or may not be familiar with including: the Japanese occupation and brutality, the war for independence, and the despotic rule of Suharto.

Annie Tucker in discussing her translation said, “I want to underscore the novel’s importance as a cultural and historical artifact contributing to a wider understanding of, and access to, contemporary Indonesia.” Combine that with the fact that it is an absorbing and eminently readable novel and you will see why Beauty is a Wound is my pick for book clubs to read and discuss this month.


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.

Beauty Is a Wound astonishes from its opening line: One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years…. Drawing on local sources — folk tales, and the all-night shadow puppet plays, with their bawdy wit and epic scope — and inspired by Melville and Gogol, Kurniawan’s distinctive voice brings something luscious yet astringent to contemporary literature.


Born in West Java in 1975 — the day that the little ex-Portuguese colony East Timor declared its sovereign independence — Eka Kurniawan is the author of novels, short stories, essays, movie scripts, and graphic novels. He has been described as “one of the few influential writers in Indonesia”.

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