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The Burnished Sun by Mirandi Riwoe

Reading Miranda Riwoe’s The Burnished Sun had me immediately searching for anything and everything else she’d written. That’s how good this collection of short stories is.

The stories move amongst characters and across time but are linked by themes of misogyny, racism, colonialism and the misuse of power; Riwoe examines the circumstances and experiences of the powerless, those outside the comfort of the ‘norm.’

In ‘Invitation,’ immigrants Arum and Dani try to make sense of and fit into their new lives in Australia. Their son, Rafi, is at kindergarten. The teacher suggests he may be ‘on the spectrum’ and the couple try to understand what this could possibly mean. They know their son as a gentle boy, yet the teacher has said he hits other children. Arum worries about the implications, what this may mean for their son’s education, for his ability to adapt, she worries about the cost of possible medical fees. The story, through carefully crafted details, shows Arum’s confusion as she valiantly attempts to fit in to this new life, yet seems to make mistakes. Although Rafi is left out of birthday party invitations, in the end, she takes him to one anyway, and feels out of place, alien amongst the other mothers. She has taken the wrong type of food, Rafi is not invited to play on the swings; Arum’s anxiety as she attempts to please, to fit in, to be a part of this new place is palpable and heart-wrenching. Other stories further examine the ideas of marginalisation.

In ‘Dignity’ a young Indonesian woman is forced by her family’s poverty to leave her baby behind to work as a domestic servant for an Australian family. Mrs Bowman’s obliviousness to her grief and longing for her baby and for the circumstances which required her to leave her family demonstrates not only callousness but an unmeasurable division in understanding and circumstances,’ “You should tell them to get the internet put on,” she says, “Then you can skype whenever you want.” I keep thinking of the erratic electricity we must buy on credit in my village, the grainy television picture, the phone kiosks.’

The stories are framed by two novellas; ‘Annah the Javanese’ and ‘The Fish Girl’. Both compellingly evoke situations of women’s powerlessness and how they are exploited. In ‘Annah the Javanese’ a young woman is both model for and mistress of Paul Gauguin who sees her merely as an exotic object to both paint and enjoy. His dismissive and patronising treatment of her is carelessly cruel; the pet monkey he acquires and cages have distinct parallels with her own situation. In ‘The Fish Girl,’ which is a re-telling of Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Four Dutchman’ but from a feminine perspective, a young girl is traded by her father to work in a Dutch Merchant’s house and the sea journey which follow ends in violence.

These stories sensitively and subtly evoke outsiders looking in, hoping for acceptance and understanding. The writing is rich, textured and compelling. And yes, I found Riwoe’s novel, Stone Sky Mountain, which is also exquisitely written, challenging and wonderful.

Reviewer: Paddy Richardson

University of Queensland Press


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