Carolyn See Book Review: Erick Setiawan's 'Of Bees and Mist'

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 21, 2009


By Erick Setiawan

Simon & Schuster. 404 pp. $25

"I began to look for a setting that could capture my various cultural influences," Erick Setiawan writes of his first novel, "but unfortunately, I didn't think there was a physical place in the world where this existed. . . . What I needed was a completely imaginary geography with its own confluence of customs and cultures, where someone of diverse origins like myself would feel at home and not be considered an outsider. The result is the nameless town in the book." Setiawan was born in Indonesia of Chinese parents. There's plenty of Chinese cuisine and behavior in this book, and the town he invents seems a lot like a southeast Asian village.

The novel comes in two parts, both the story of the young girl Meridia, who grows up in a forbidding house chilled by fierce winds due to the lack of love inside. Her father is cold and remote, and leaves the house every night concealed in a yellow mist to be with his mistress. He returns in the morning enveloped in a blue mist. During regular hours, the front door is clouded by an ivory mist to discourage visitors. (Setiawan has availed himself of many special effects, some from folk tales, many from martial-arts movies.) Meridia's mother, unloved, takes her consolation in forgetfulness and prolific cooking. Demons lurk in the mirrors of this house and stairs stretch out for miles. Meridia is a very sad and lonely child indeed.

Things pick up when Meridia makes her first real friend at 14, and even more when at 16 she meets the handsome and carefree Daniel, a couple of years older than she. During the first stages of their romance they encounter "a former actress who gulped down baby mice to preserve her youth, and a hirsute man who annually gave birth to a burning bush." Also, "bald nuns [who] ululate with the wolves." But then things calm down a bit. Meridia and Daniel get married and go live in his family's house. The story turns into a fascinating domestic drama, in which Meridia enters into a pitched battle with Eva, her mother-in-law, which will end only when one of them dies.

The narrative changes from fanciful to ultra-real, no matter how nameless or timeless this village is supposed to be. Eva, that wretched mother-in-law, has successfully run her house just as she's wanted to, hounding her hapless jeweler husband, Elias, with numberless grievances and evil thoughts that manifest themselves as swarms of bees. She sets her mean-tempered daughter Malin against her sweet-tempered daughter Permony, rendering them both miserable. When Meridia enters the house as daughter-in-law, Eva seems cordial, but she steals the wedding gifts and dowry, saying she'll give them to charity, as is the family custom. Of course that's a great big lie -- she keeps everything for herself. (As someone who was a wife for five years in a Chinese family and had my own wedding ring stolen from me by my father-in-law after only three weeks, this rang horridly true to me.)

Daniel has survived the family drama so far by being easygoing, but that's not going to work anymore. These women are in it for the long haul. Eva steals, bosses, talks trash, spreads rumors, airs her endless grievances. Meridia rebels in classic daughter-in-law fashion, disobeying Eva in a hundred little ways. There's an inevitable family fight; Meridia's parents rouse themselves to come to her rescue, lawyers are called in, and finally Meridia and Daniel get to have their own little home and a tiny jewelry shop of their own. But Eva only gives them tasteless pieces to sell and insists on having 60 percent of the profit. She has them followed to monitor their every move. And when Meridia gives birth, Eva uses whatever magic she possesses (mostly in the form of those awful bees) to try to kill Meridia in childbirth.

"Of Bees and Mist" goes on like that. Meridia and Daniel enter into a secret partnership with another jeweler and embezzle profits from Eva, who, in turn, withholds more of their money. When Meridia suffers from severe post-partum depression, Eva hooks Daniel up with another woman. Meanwhile, Meridia befriends her two sisters-in-law, who have never been too crazy about their mother. Upon being discovered in adultery, Daniel undergoes a terrible punishment.

Personally, I think this novel would have done better without the ululating bald nuns and those floating clouds of mist, but that's just my opinion. And I don't think that words like "varmint" and "horse around" belong in such a fanciful story. But the author has declared emphatically that his "journey in life so far . . . is . . . unlike any others." So I guess he can do what he wants.

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