“The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok” by Mark Heyward

Lombok

The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok chronicles Australian Mark Heyward’s triumphs and struggles in building a house on the Indonesian island directly east of Bali. The idea behind the title is that the islands of Indonesia are opaque and don’t reveal their troubled histories apart from in the odd transparent, or glass-like, moment.

Not only does Heyward want to build the house, but he needs to work with other expats, and local villagers to construct a road to access the property. Thankfully, the book strays well beyond tales of construction because the author’s multi-decade experience of living in Indonesia, on Lombok and other islands, is more interesting than his mission to create his dream home.

 

The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok, Mark Heyward (Monsoon Books, November 2023)
The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok, Mark Heyward (Monsoon Books, November 2023)

While others may struggle, the author can find beauty in a construction site and wax lyrical about teak timber. However, his upbeat, can-do Aussie attitude doesn’t stop him from writing about some of the painful episodes in Indonesia’s history, and he sees the tragic legacies of these events all around him. He doesn’t dwell on them, though. He doesn’t directly state it, but this book is a guide on how to stay well-balanced and productive as an expat.

Heyward is an expert on local culture, and his descriptions of both Muslim and Hindu festivals on Lombok are very informative. He has converted to Islam. He prays with his Javanese wife and two sons and fasts during Ramadan. Heyward realizes that Islam has a largely symbolic meaning for people in Indonesia. Much like with Christianity in the West, how it cultivates community is the important thing. Less moderate than the author, is a Kiwi who’s taken the name Husein Abdullah. We meet Husein with “spittle flying from the corners of his mouth”, trying to recruit Heyward’s help to clean up the environment of Lombok. Husein is known as the Bule Gila or Crazy White Man by the locals and doesn’t appear to be in great mental fettle.

Heyward doesn’t want to save the world (or Lombok in this case) but does what he can. One interesting character who turns up several times in the narrative is Pak Mobin, a tenant farmer Heyward “inherits” when he buys the land to build the house. He helps Mobin with medical care for his family, because:

 

The family, like most on the hill, live in a parallel world: a world inhabited by spirits, both good and evil. A world without doctors and medicine.

 

Heyward also appears to be a good social drinker and in no danger of ending his days in Indonesia in an “alcoholic haze” like some he observes. More proof of his moderate attitude comes with letting Laras, his well-educated wife, handle the corrupt local bureaucracy. For deals with officials, he keeps himself hidden to avoid price increases a foreign face can cause. At one stage, he and Laras have trouble in their relationship because she has been studying in Tasmania, and they have spent so much time apart. But they solve this problem readily enough.

 

Guiltily, I found myself hoping Heyward would lose his patience with the many delays in the construction. But no, he takes it all in his stride with a pinch of shit-happens Australian philosophy. He keeps his musings on his philosophical outlook, and insights into his warm-hearted and resilient inner world, brief.

Some of his descriptions of his motley crew of expat friends with ambiguous smiles and impish faces lack nuance, but his prose is clear and straightforward. Heyward proves that not all writers need to be VS Naipaul-level cranks. I came away full of admiration for the man. Apart from building his house, he is an educational consultant who has devoted much of his life to improving education in Indonesia.


Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.