The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe is a short, grim story about an Indonesian girl, Mina, whose life changes when her father sends her to work for a Dutch merchant.
And what will she wear? What is the town like? Who will she work with? She asks herself these questions, a tremor of excitement finally mingling with the dread in her stomach, making her feel pleasantly sick like when she eats too much sirsak, the sweetness of the custard apple curdling in her stomach.
The move from her sheltered, gentle life in a small fishing village to servitude in the merchant’s large house, exposes Mina to new feelings and new experiences, not all of which are welcome.
She smells the night air, searching for the salt of the sea on the evening breeze… It’s in these closing moments of each night, when she feels the ocean’s presence, Mina remembers who she is. But the memory has weight, sinks in her chest like a pebble in the sea. She misses her mother. She misses the silence of plaiting the netting with her, she misses their rhythm of scaling the fish.
From the outset, most readers will predict the tragedy that will befall Mina – her story is sadly familiar in colonial history. Riwoe delivers it with care, fine detail and a brutal ending that left me feeling horrified but not surprised.
Will it win the Stella Prize? I don’t think so – the fleeting experience of reading a novella isn’t quite enough against some of the other shortisted titles.
One of the first things she learns to cook is pisang epe. Ibu Tana teaches her to fry the banana with palm sugar until it is brittle and sweet, and how to recognise when to take it from the pan.