I was recently asked by Gareth Richards of Gerakbudaya Bookshop in Penang to pick the three best books I read that were published in 2016. It was a real challenge narrowing it down to only three (I could have easily listed 20 or 30), but in the end I chose one graphic novel / collected comics volume (Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda), one short fiction collection (The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu), and one novel (The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak), the last of which I want to talk just a bit more about.
Laksmi Pamuntjak has published collections of verse and short stories, and five editions of the Jakarta Good Food Guide. She is proficiently bilingual in both Indonesian and English, and has translated two works of Indonesian poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad. The Question of Red was first published in Indonesian in 2012 by Gramedia Pustaka Utama, and became an instant hit. The German edition did so as well, winning the LiBeraturpreis in 2016, appearing on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Top 8 list of the best books of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015, and being named best work of fiction from Asia, America, Latin America, and the Caribbean translated into German on the Weltempfaenger (Receivers of the World) list.
An English translation was hurriedly produced by Gramedia in 2013, but Laksmi later did a ground-up revisiting of the text, transcreating the novel in English, and this is the edition published earlier this year by AmazonCrossing in the US and by Speaking Tiger in the Indian Subcontinent.
I met Laksmi when she was a featured author at the 2015 Singapore Writers Festival, and she signed my copy of the Indonesia-only limited English edition (which may now be a collector’s item, as it’s now out of print), but urged me to find the new edition in 2016 and read it instead. Which is what I did. And no other novel I read this year came even close to what an amazing book this is. You can find the description and effusive blurbs on the author’s official book page, so I won’t rehash them here, except to say that I LOVED this novel. It took me two months to read, which is a long time for me, even for a book of this size, because I kept stopping to savour the writing and the imagery and the depth of feeling that infuses every page. I’m just in awe of how epic and heartbreaking it is, and written so beautifully. The Question of Red is an amazing work of art, tackling darkness and redemption and love, and it inspires me to get back to my own writing pronto.
And I was puzzled that the novel has frankly received little attention in the American book world. It’s gotten a few reviews, but none yet in mainstream literary publications. It is unfortunately entirely possible that it has been overlooked by review venues and bookstores because of its Amazonian association (which, if true, is an incredible shame). I am no fan of Amazon myself, but I’m quite willing to put that aside in order to help shine a bigger light on this incredible novel.
The list price of the book on Amazon is $14.95, but it’s marked down to $8.67, which is already an incredible deal. However, starting now and continuing for the next three months, the book is absolutely free to read as part of the Prime Reading program in the US. Meaning that until the end of March, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can read the book for zero dollars (you should automatically see the “Read for Free” option).
You owe it to yourself to read this remarkable book, and with prices so low (or free), there’s really no reason not to. And once you’ve read it, do leave a review on the Amazon page. Go on, make this one of your New Year’s resolutions.