GABY RUSLI WRITES — Sometimes in our younger, more vulnerable years, we find ourselves roaming the world, trying to find out who we are and what we are meant to do. Set between the Netherlands and Indonesia, Dewi Lestari’s Paper Boats (2017) serves to remind younger Indonesian generations to march to the beat of their drum regardless of parental demands and expectations.
Kugy is an eccentric, lively girl who believes that becoming a fairy-tale writer will bring her tremendous happiness and fulfillment. For Keenan, a tortured artist in his own right, being the oldest son in a strict, traditional household meant he would have to make great sacrifices. Yet, in trying to discover themselves, Kugy and Keenan find genuine love and friendship in each other. Though separated multiple times by trials and adversities, their story is a testament to the saying, “what’s meant to be yours will always find its way back to you.”
Dewi Lestari was born into a family deeply immersed in the creative arts. Before writing Paper Boats, Lestari was a backup singer for the renowned Indonesian artist, Chrisye. She went on to publish her first novel, The Knight, The Princess, and the Falling Star (2001), which was accompanied by two sequels. Her other works include Coffee Philosophy: A Decade’s Worth of Stories and Prose (2006) and Paper Boats, both adapted into movies, with the former becoming a national blockbuster.
In her admirable attempt to reaffirm the younger generations in their pursuit of self-discovery, Lestari’s novel inadvertently romanticizes indecision. Despite their growing feelings, Kugy and Keenan continue to form halfhearted romantic bonds with others. As a result, they form a sticky web of tumultuous and turbulent relationships, passed off as adequate and acceptable but ultimately unfulfilling. Because of miscommunications and chronic overthinking from both protagonists, people around them get caught and wounded in the crossfire.
Paper Boats may have been a marvelous contemporary read in its time, but it feels now as though its plot line is lacking in direction and purpose, making it a sadly under-realized effort by Utami to inspire her young readers in their self-exploration journey. Although starting out as an exemplary quest featuring two young adults trying to realize their dreams against all odds, Paper Boats becomes a derivative love story. One cannot help but worry about the message Lestari conveys to the young, malleable minds who read her work.
Criticism of another’s craft is in no way condemnation of its craftsman. Dee Lestari is undoubtedly an accomplished writer and the author of best-selling novels, but while having such fluency in words to captivate millions of readers is a gift, it also requires considerable responsibility and awareness of its lasting effects. Though fictional, Kugy and Keenan’s story of indecision and irresponsibility reminds us that literature is not merely a form of entertainment but also a source of inspiration and guidance that can make or break generations.
Book Reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an International Relations graduate and environmentalist who is passionate about Indonesian and Southeast Asian political affairs.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.