Yahyu is a high-class classically trained court-dancer from central Java, Indonesia. She is stunningly beautiful. It is this feature and her dance talent that grants her prestige and a high level of respect amongst her village. However her beauty also attracts the eye of a Dutch man who works on a rubber plantation. Ultimately Yahyu’s beauty is the catalyst for her down fall. Yahyu makes the fatal error of being seduced by a Belando (foreigner) and tempted by the financial prospect of a union with him. Consequently she is left alone and pregnant. Her reputation and that of her family is compromised. Her family attempts an arranged marriage to cover up Yahyu’s faux pas but she refuses. Thus she is cast out by her family and her fellow villagers. And so begins her journey in to the unknown. Is this sounding a little Mills & Boon at this stage? Read on.
Jaipong dancer takes its readers on an adventure through the dangerous Sumatran jungle of the 1950s. Dense with foliage, the constant threat of dangerous wild creatures, dissident groups rebelling against the corrupt government are an “unseen” enemy (or possibly friends?) not to mention the nagging possibility of loneliness, attack, starvation and illness.
Yahyu is alone and lost in dangerous territory however her moral compass gives her direction and she strives to do what is right for her child and to restore honour to her family. After many ordeals, along comes another Belando who rights the wrong of the first foreigner. Jim is a decent tea plantation owner. He is moral, honorable and he and Yahyu fall in love. He even promises to unconditionally love the child, even though he is not the birth father. However nothing is fair in love or the underground war being fought in the jungle.
Although I found the plot a little weak, the redeeming strength of this book is the realistic portrayal of the Indonesian people, including remote jungle tribes. Jaipong Dancer depicts the complex code of Indonesian society, the corruption and violence of the 1950s political changes, as well as portraying great amounts of hatred and love. British author Patrick Sweeting has lived and worked in Asia (including Indonesia) for three decades. He worked for the United Nations on issues of conflict prevention and recovery and has a degree in Social Anthropology. He married an Indonesian woman and they had three children together. Jaipong Dancer is his first novel however he is working on the sequel. I will read it when it is published however I find myself wishing that Patrick Sweeting would write a memoir as it sounds as though he has had a remarkable life.