Book review: Sustenance

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.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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11 Responses to Book review: Sustenance

  1. You are quick off the mark with your 2010 reading Angela – first review posted for the challenge!

    This title sounds wonderful – thanks to your review I’ll be putting Lazaroo on my radar also!


    • angelasavage says:

      Hi Jo, I spent the Xmas/New Year break in Queensland where there was nothing to do but read! Plus this book was so great, I was inspired to get the review done ASAP. I look forward to seeing what others are reading/reviewing over the summer break.


  2. Oops, I’m living in the past…. it’s 2011!


  3. olgamary savage says:

    I had it in my hand at the bookshop this morning and put it back will try to get it tomorrow. May be a good one for our book group. Thanks DG


    • angelasavage says:

      Mum, this would be a great book group choice because there’s so much in it. I’ve highlighted the cross-cultural material because that’s what interests me, but the book has much to offer different readers.


  4. pauli l says:

    thanks Angela. sounds like a great first read for the year. is on my list now. great too as a west aussie to hear of a local author i haven’t come across before.


    • angelasavage says:

      Hi Pauli, you have some terrific writers in the west. Check out David Whish-Wilson’s book Line of Sight if you haven’t already. Also worth reading in the crime genre is Take Out by Felicity Young who is based somewhere near Gidgegannup. Cheers, Angela


  5. shelleyrae@ Book'd Out says:

    Definately sounds intriguing – thanks for sharing your review!


  6. Tien says:

    This one sounds good too!

    Aaah… I’m supposed to be trimming down my bookshelf this year not adding to it


  7. Paul Johnson says:

    Sulari’s “Chasing Odysseus” recommended to me by Angela Savage.
    As this is my first ever public review I am not sure if I am heading down the right track!! I thought the book was hard to get into at the start but it was soon making sense. In the first 5 chapters the war began and it surprisingly launched into a blood thirsty battle. What I didn’t like was Scamandrios whipping Machaon and saying that the herdsmen betrayed Troy, because it seemed so unfair when the herdsmen saved as many people as they could. The 3 brothers and their sister set out on their journey to find out what actually happened for the Greeks to get into the walls of Troy. The ultimate journey is to find Odysseus and there are many tasks ahead of them.There are so many stories that I find it hard to remember them all, just as I finished one story there was another and another filled with peril. Sulari, I would like to say that there was a monster that said all men were horrible, jealous and unkind and could never be trusted which I think is harsh!! Some of us are ok! Overall I loved this book and maybe when I am a bit older and revisit the book I will understand more meanings of the more ‘mature’ aspects of the book which I struggled to understand this time around. Thankyou for the opportunity to read and review this fabulous book. I have now reserved the original “Odyssey” at our local library and look forward to seeing many more books written by Sulari and recommended by Angela – Paul Johnson


  8. Lea Johnson says:

    Hey there – just to let you know the library needs to spend some money before June 30 and keen to have your list of recommendations!!! How exciting is that for your writing buddies?? Lea


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