Reviewed: The Burnished Sun, Mirandi Riwoe, University of Queensland Press
Mirandi Riwoe’s latest book, The Burnished Sun, is a forceful collection of stories about alienation, missing home, sacrifice, and striving for acceptance. It consists of twelve stories, including ‘The Fish Girl’, which won the Seizure Viva La Novella prize in 2017. Throughout this book Riwoe takes the reader into the emotional lives of her protagonists, and with her writing invites us to explore the darkness that often lurks behind our daily experiences.
It’s a cliché among comedians that you should open your show with your second-best joke, and close with the best one. That way you hook the audience, and you leave them wanting more. The same applies to collections of stories, and The Burnished Sun is a perfect example. The two longer stories bracketing this book stand out as some of the finest writing therein. The opener, ‘Annah the Javanese’, tells us about Annah—a maid and model for the French painter Paul Gaugin. The collection closes with ‘The Fish Girl’, a retelling of a story by W. Somerset Maugham, which follows a young Indonesian woman as she’s first taken from her village to be traded to a Dutch merchant, and later to a ship’s captain. Both stories feature protagonists who are young women removed from their homes without their consent, treated much like objects in the eyes of their families and their employers, and who are forced to endure the casual cruelty of settler colonialism. Both of these stories stand out for the way in which Riwoe crafts the world within, letting us get intimately into the drama of their protagonists’ lives.
Riwoe’s protagonists tend to be young women, lost in their circumstances and longing for a life different to their current reality. For instance, ‘What Would Kim Do’ features a young Asian woman who struggles with her developing sexuality—she looks at her white friends with some envy at how men seem to gravitate towards them, how they seem to fit in easier, and how they seem to exude more confidence around the ways in which they carry themselves. She on the other hand, feels awkward at every point, often finding it difficult to say no despite discomfort. In ‘Hardflip’, a young skater, Oskar, finds himself trapped between his morals, his worries for his family, and his absolute desire to fit in. When he’s planning a potentially dangerous trick on his skateboard, he thinks to himself that if he succeeds, ‘the others will raise him up too, embrace him. He will really belong.’
This isn’t to say that alienation and the desire to belong are explored only through traumatic or awkward experiences. A different thread running through the book is to do with the way cooking can be an expression of love, and how the food from one’s native home can be a source of comfort in difficult circumstances. In almost all of the stories food plays a pivotal role in revealing something of the protagonists to us. In ‘Invitation’, Arum, a woman who’d recently migrated to Australia with her family is worried that her son doesn’t have many friends at school. When he’s finally invited to a classmate’s birthday party, she puts all of her hopes for his fitting in on the dish she brings. It’s through food that she can overcome the anxiety about her still-developing English and how she will be received.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of this book is the way it invites re-reading. Despite the brevity of most of the stories, and the economy of writing necessitated by the short form, Riwoe crafts each to contain a full and rich setting inhabited by multidimensional protagonists. Her writing is beautiful, filled with metaphor and simile often straddling the line between poetry and prose. The Burnished Sun shows us how even seemingly quotidian events can be laced with significance and the potential for both trauma and kindness. In this, Riwoe invites us to consider how we influence one another and reminds us how easy it is to forget the impact we can have on others.
Maks Sipowicz is a Polish-Australian writer living and working in Naarm.