Sapphire Promise: Based on a true story of loyalty, trust, and unfailing love, Sally Brandle (May 2021)
Sapphire Promise: Based on a true story of loyalty, trust, and unfailing love, Sally Brandle (Copper Horse Publishing, May 2021)

Loyalty to family. Trusting instincts. The will to survive. These virtues are deeply embedded in a mature Dutch teenager, Annika Wolter. Her attributes prove useful as she navigates typical coming-of-age insecurities and a blossoming romance with a handsome lieutenant in 1939 Batavia, Java.

In children’s literature and in young adult fiction, food is often used to bridge cultures—“dumplings are the great social equaliser” says the protagonist in the YA novel The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling as an example. And while food might be one of the easier entries into a culture, there are other ways too. Art, for example, which Singapore’s National Gallery does with success in its “Awesome Art” series. 

Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet  (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)
Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)

Joseph Conrad’s favored destination was Asia, the bustling transit port of Singapore, the remote islands and ports of the Dutch East Indies. It was from Singapore that he made four voyages as first mate on the steamship Vidar to a small trading post which was forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo. A river and a settlement which he described as “One of the last, forgotten, unknown places on earth”. His Borneo books—Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rescue and the latter part of Lord Jim—were all based on the places he visited, the stories he heard, and the people he met during these voyages.

To some extent, all one needs to know about The Java Enigma is that it has been called, more than once, “Da Vinci Code”-like. This will either intrigue or repel, depending on how one feels about Dan Brown’s genre-creating blockbuster. Neither reaction would however be entirely warranted, for—while there are certainly similarities—Erni Salleh’s debut novel is quite a different animal. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter.