A captivating escape to the romance and nostalgia of the Dutch East Indies on the cusp of World War II, where love and loyalties are tested and life is about to be immeasurably altered – Sunbirds by Queensland-based Mirandi Riwoe is one of those books that draws you into another place and time, and makes you forget you’re even reading at all.
Beginning with an unidentified female character jumping out of a plane, the novel weaves layers of characters masterfully together to reveal not only who this woman is, but how she got there, while also exploring the impact of colonialism and war in the region.
Set at the van Hoorn family’s tea plantation and manor, complete with pillars and louvred doors, rocking chairs and potted palms along the verandah, Sunbirds takes place between December 1941 and March 1942 and follows the story of Anna, the overindulged daughter of mixed Dutch and Indonesian blood.
Anna is set to marry Mattijs, a promising young Dutch pilot who has succumbed to the allure of West Java and plans to forge his career by managing a fleet of planes – a job that’s been promised by Anna’s father. While Anna has always dreamed of travelling to Holland (“the homeland”), she also feels a deep bond to the country where she was born, and to its people. On paper, Anna and Mattijs are a perfect match, but as the world begins to unravel, the question of whether to follow their heads or hearts sees priorities change.
With the looming threat of Japanese invasion, a sense of dread falls upon the plantation, as they eagerly listen to the latest radio reports and read updates in the newspaper. Anna helps the servants gather provisions for the bunker they’ve built, while her brother Willem and friend Maria prepare to go off and fight and provide aid. Anna wishes she could do more to help, but has been forbidden to join the war efforts.
Not everyone thinks the coming war is bad news though. Some locals see it as opportunity for revolution and to be liberated from their imperialist oppressors, and soon Anna begins to question the status quo, and the kind of future she wants for herself. Sneaking away to a nearby village, she takes traditional dancing lessons and becomes secretly involved with a local freedom fighter. Meanwhile, Anna’s mother suffers a breakdown and is sent away to recover, and Mattijs becomes ill with malaria and is required to be cared for by Diah, the observant housekeeper who grew up on the plantation and feels like she’s part of the family.
Despite all of the drama, it’s the murder of a local girl that grips Anna’s attention, and she becomes fixated on following the court case – much to the dismay of the others. The story of Fientje de Vries is told in the form of a novelette – a charming but tragic short story that sits inside Sunbirds and explores issues of racism and justice. And a shock revelation about Fientje’s identity helps to shift Anna’s perspective of her family for good.
Told from the perspectives of Anna, Mattijs and Diah, Sunbirds has Dutch and Indonesian names, words and phrases are scattered throughout to create a vibrant and exotic melting pot of language. This adds a rich cultural dimension and authenticity to the story.
I could not put this book down and consumed it (or did it consume me?) in less than a week. It also piqued my curiosity about the history of Indonesia – a close neighbour and top holiday destination for so many Aussies. If all historical fiction was this good, it could easily become my favourite genre!
Sunbirds by Mirandi Riwoe
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Pages: 320 pages
Publication date: 29 August 2023