Arts Books By The Book Interview literature Review Singapore

★★★★☆ Book Review: The Java Enigma by Erni Salleh

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A UNESCO librarian is in for the adventure of her life. 

Hear me out: librarians are cool people. They’re akin to academics, filled with a bastion of specialised information to dish out when you least expect it, plus, they’re masters of order and organisation. But rarely do they ever get a chance to show off these skills and display exactly what they’re capable of when put to the test.

It’s no wonder then that Erni Salleh, a librarian herself, has dreamed up the perfect setting for a librarian to become the star of her own adventure in her Epigram Fiction Prize-nominated debut novel The Java Enigma. When Irin Omar inherits a safe deposit box from her late father, the ordinary UNESCO librarian embarks on a journey that’ll have her travelling from country to country, uncovering the deepest secrets of Southeast Asia as she breaks codes, use her vault of historical knowledge, and most importantly of all – discover the skeletons hidden in her own family’s closet.

Doubtless, this is a book that will be compared to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (Erni Salleh even makes explicit reference to it at one point). But what sets this story apart and gives it its own signature is its Asian-ness, not only in the setting, but even in the protagonist, and her approach towards the unlikely situation she finds herself in. Here, we don’t get dashing, testosterone-charged adventure oozing with pretty sidekicks, but a softer (and equally serious) heroine. Irin’s perspective and personality is well-fleshed out, a woman who’s relatably imperfect, conscious of her own body image and family issues, yet confident enough of her own skills and knowledge to ensure she sees things through to the end.

And it’s not like she does this alone either. With a rugged seafarer by her side, she crosses oceans and continents to unravel the mystery, poring over maps and (illegally) diving into waters to uncover more parts of the enigmatic puzzle left for her, and even encounters a secret organisation of knowledge keepers to help her on her journey (thankfully, no ritual murders here). But perhaps most endearing of all is the way Erni imbues Irin with such personality and spunk, a full-on history geek who isn’t afraid to ramble on about her interests in the provenance of artefacts and ancient Southeast Asian history. With strong characterisation in her travel companions, it’s easy to get swept up and immersed in Irin’s one track mind feel completely invested in where it eventually ends.

While we do wish that it was a little longer, with plenty more unresolved mysteries and characters that could have been afforded more backstory, The Java Enigma presents itself as a rather singular literary work for its boldness in putting Southeast Asian history at the fore, certainly able to spur new interest in readers that pick this book up. As far as cartography goes, Erni Salleh has sailed to terra incognita with this debut, and marks a promising new voice for Southeast Asian literature fully embracing its rich heritage and culture that proves that even the geeks can be the hero of their own story.

Recommended for: Readers who love a good mystery and adventure, imbued with a unique Southeast Asian touch that champions women, geeks, and above all, family. 

The Java Enigma is published by Epigram and available here

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