Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Book Review of Lian Gouw's "Only a Girl" (BY ALLEN GABORRO)
TITLE: Only a Girl
AUTHOR: Lian Gouw
On balance, such vibrant novels as Lian Gouw’s “Only a Girl” provides readers with a strong literary insight into what is a whole new world to them. It is a world comprised of new cultural and historical terrain that breaks down our unfamiliarity with alien cultures and histories and piques our interest in them.
In “Only a Girl”, Lian Gouw fuses together several cultural and historical contexts and subject-matter, some of which knowledgeable readers are probably acquainted with like the Great Depression, World War Two, and historical feminist values and experiences. But with multicultural novels that are weighted with the literary quality of “Only a Girl”, there is always a measure of unawareness to be expected on the part of the average reader who might not have been exposed much to anything beyond his or her own culture. This is why I believe Gouw’s novel—grounded as it is in several decades of Indonesian history—will be a revelation to her reading audiences. It is nothing less than a compelling story about living in a society that not a great deal of people in the Western world know much about.
Thanks to Gouw’s novel, readers will appreciate what a family of extraordinary women had to go through in a society that has been buffeted by a multiplicity of native and foreign cultural influences. Indeed, the plot of “Only a Girl” takes place at a crossroads of cultures—Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian—as they interacted in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies. This was what Indonesia was called during its colonization by the Netherlands and prior to its emergence as an independent state in the years following the end of World War II.
“Only a Girl” has the feel of a memoir that has been wrapped up in the structure and trappings of a novel. The book’s story to a large extent corresponds to Gouw’s life as a child and adult of Chinese descent in colonial and post-colonial Indonesia. Linguistically-versed and educated in Dutch, the colonial lingua franca of the Dutch East Indies, Gouw can be said to have incorporated her colonial life experience into the character of Carolien, the second-generation female member of the Lee family who has absolutely no reservations in embracing colonial values. Carolien is the daughter of the elderly Nanna. For Nanna, it is important to remain true to her Chinese traditions even as her daughter is flouting them for the sake of wanting to eat, breathe, and think European.
Then there is Jenny, Carolien’s own daughter. Carolien does her best to immerse Jenny in Western culture. However, being a creature of the ways of the West complicates Jenny’s life as the Dutch finally relinquish control, after 300 years of colonial rule, of what will become the modern state of Indonesia.
In addition to their family ties and shared feminist consciousness, a common thread linking all three generations of women in “Only a Girl” is their passionate sense of strength, spirit, and wonder towards their human relationships. This is in spite of the momentous cultural and political changes that are surging around them, changes that inevitably come with turmoil and confusion.
Finding themselves at the mercy of cultural and familial traditions, Nanna, Carolien, and Jenny manage to find enough breathing room to give rise to their all-encompassing desire for love, self and social acknowledgment, and freedom. And yet, in Gouw’s deep and profound rendering of her characters, each one of the women are not narrative islands onto themselves. Their stories, while distinct in many ways from each other, are at once interwoven into an integrated, continuous whole.
Writing any type of historical novel is never easy, but Lian Gouw makes it look so in “Only a Girl”. On account of her resonant writing style, her devotion to a life so given to intensely subjective narrative, and her respect for her home country’s tumultuous history, Gouw succeeds in keeping her readers in a semi-permanent state of enthrallment and enlightenment. All of this is how her novel speaks to us as open-minded readers and how it speaks across cultural divides.