A reading of The Four Dutchmen, written by William Somerset Maugham and first published in 1928, is not a necessary prerequisite to reading Miranda Riwoe’s The Fish Girl. However, the general background for that short story is integral to an understanding of the text under review. Maugham was an English novelist, short story writer, and playwright, one of the most highly paid of his time, with up to 40 film adaptations of his work. His short story, The Four Dutchmen is an odious tale which follows the trials and tribulations of a Dutch quartet of seafaring men, their misogynistic attitudes rife throughout the text, as their friendship is “hindered” by the arrival of a “Malay trollope”.
Upon reading Maugham’s The Four Dutchmen, Brisbane author Mirandi Riwoe, being a woman of Indonesian descent herself, found the tone of the short story troubling. The story of the female Malay character in the short story remained untold, with substantial emphasis held upon the destruction of male friendships, and a great disrespect to both women and cultures other than their own. Inspired by the voiceless Malay woman, whose wisp of an existence was written as a mere accessory to complement the male characters, has emerged Riwoe’s The Fish Girl – an apt antidote to Maugham’s account. Published in 2017, the subversive tale won the Seizure’s Viva la Novella Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize.
Throughout the novella, Riwoe subverts the idea of Maugham’s “Malay trollope”, who remains unnamed in The Four Dutchmen, introducing readers to her potential origins – forging an identity for an otherwise unseen character, as her former traditional world collides with the colonial. No longer nameless, she is brought to life as Mina. Riwoe’s vivid characterisation of Mina reimagines the classic tale to bring light to perspectives left unseen, and heartbreaking pieces of a story untold.
The Fish Girl is a beautiful and harrowing novella. Light in weight for its pages are few, but heavy in heart. The story begins with an epigraph from The Four Dutchmen…
“One of these days he would buy himself a house on the hills in Java and marry a pretty little Javanese. They were so small and so gentle and they made no noise, and he would dress her in silk sarongs and give her gold chains to wear around her neck and gold bangles to put on her arms.”
Henceforth, Mina’s life unfolds before us. Amidst the tangible, pungent aroma of clove cigarettes, lemongrass, and frangipanis, readers are privy to the thoughts and feelings of the young Malay woman, thrust into a world unknown. Here, she develops in character and spirit alike, forging her identity as an individual, and as a young woman coming to terms with the restraints of expectation placed upon her. Mina’s history is carefully constructed by Riwoe, reclaiming the space which Maugham left unfilled.
The young Mina navigates new territories of heart and mind alike, developing a shadow of a sense of self along the way. She learns a new language, teaches her own native tongue to another, and observes the ways in which members of different cultures, classes, and sexes interact within society. She tastes a flurry of the world’s colours upon both tongue and soul, as she considers the implications of what it means to exist in a colonised world as both a native inhabitant and woman. As she experiences various forms of pain, pleasure, heartfelt moments, and heartbreak – Mina’s existence has filled the space which The Four Dutchmen left bare.
There are some issues to take with the novella, or, rather, points of discussion. Mina does somewhat echo the notion that women of low socioeconomic status, rural, culturally traditional societies move through life with little more in mind than the domestic and sexual duties of a woman in a patriarchal society. Those shadows of self not fully able to be realised. It oft reinforces the idea that women can be won over with trinkets, and Mina can sometimes be perceived less as a survivor, and more a frivolous woman who is so easily manipulated by the men around her. In hindsight, however, given the context of the tale in which The Fish Girl speaks to, it is understandable to an extent. Fortunately, this does not detract from the importance of the story’s subversion, and Riwoe masterfully amplifies Maugham’s slight honourable efforts, in which he alluded to some of the more dishonourable attributes of colonisers, and toxic stereotypes of men in general.
If you’ve read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Four Dutchmen, you’ll know how The Fish Girl concludes. However, this time, it is wholly through a painful recount from Mina’s perspective, and weeping is a possibility. Riwoe’s writing is simplistic in parts, but the story itself is incredibly well written. Due to the simplistic nature of the language, the structure and beautiful flow of sentences are ever more effective – allowing sensory detail to be experienced, and emotions to wash over the reader in waves like the sea meeting the shore, drenching the reader in the depths of its sadness.
If you have a spare hour or two, allow yourself the opportunity to immerse yourself in this tale. We all should make the conscious effort to spend more time acknowledging the stories left untold – see the unseen transpire before us, and hear their voices rise from the shadows. Riwoe’s The Fish Girl is certainly a good place to begin.