Simone Lazaroo’s first three novels all won the WA Premier’s prize for fiction and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sustenance continues her perfect strike rate. Beautifully crafted, satirical and poignant, Sustenance strikes the perfect balance, being a character-driven novel with an engaging plot. I read it in two days and loved it.
Set at the Elsewhere Hotel in an unnamed part of inland Bali, Sustenance revolves around Perpetua de Mello, an ‘illegitimate kampong child abandoned by her expatriate father’. Perpetua marries and migrates from her mother’s place in Malacca to Perth, but her marriage does not survive the death of her young son. A surprise invitation leads her to Bali and the Hotel Elsewhere — ‘a slightly precarious place between Malacca and Australia…between hope and despair’ — where her English father is co-owner and she takes over the cooking.
The story unfolds over twenty-four hours and is told from the point of view of Perpetua, her father Oswald whose mental health is deteriorating, a Balinese couple Tedja and Made who work at the hotel, and a suite of guests — Australians plus a French family — who are brought together in dramatic circumstances, ‘reduced to the bones of [their] being’ by fear, forced to contemplate what matters most to them.
Lazaroo peppers the story with reflections on food, culture and religion. But this is no Eat, Pray, Love — it’s practically the antidote. In place of Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-absorption, Lazaroo provides acute, often biting observations about the clash in perceptions between locals and orang asing or ‘outsiders’. Where foreign tourists see the Balinese as innately easygoing, obliging, even spiritual because they smile all the time — and will tell them as much — the Balinese perspective is different.
Even when he wasn’t working at the hotel, Tedja was unfailingly courteous to tourists, including the bad-mannered ones. This wasn’t because he was particularly acquiescent by nature, or frightened, or following the local newspaper’s injunctions to be friendly to foreigners. It was because his politeness saved him from spending any more energy or thought on difficult people than was strictly necessary.
Where tourists lured by slogans like find yourself envy the Balinese their extended family ties, the locals reflects on how family conflicts are ‘intensified by living so closely’.
The novel poses questions about how poorer people damaged by unconscious insensitivity and conscious exploitation can seek redress, but is all the more powerful for placing these questions in the context of broader reflections on grief and hope across all characters and cultures.
‘There is no adequate compensation for some kinds of loss,’ Perpetua muses towards the end of the book. ‘You must work hard to realise the possibilities. Difficult but necessary, this day in, day out making of sustenance from scarce ingredients.’
It’s Perpetua’s ability to make sustenance from scarce ingredients that sees her emerge as the hero, enabling her to find a sense of peace the foreigners on detox diets, being massaged with herbs and buying up bronze Buddhas can only dream of.
For me, reading Lazaroo’s book was like a masterclass in fiction writing. So it was no surprise to learn she is a Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Arts at Murdoch University. And this is the second outstanding novel I’ve read in the past few months by a Western Australian author, the other being Line of Sight by David Whish-Wilson. Both will be guests of this year’s Perth Writers Festival.
Thanks to Clare Kennedy (who reviewed The Half-Child for the Herald Sun) for recommending Sustenance to me. I’ll certainly be seeking out Lazaroo’s other novels.