Of Bees and Mist
By Erick Setiawan

(Simon & Schuster; 404 pages; $25)

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
Friday 21 August, 2009

Forget the melting pot – when raised with a diverse conglomeration of cultures and geographies, you’re more likely to feel perpetually displaced rather than abundantly connected.

That’s why San Francisco computer scientist-turned-author Erick Setiawan regularly used literature as an escape from a trifold identity struggle – born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents, where he lived before immigrating to the United States at age 16 – and the resulting confusion and discrimination. It makes sense, then, that in Setiawan’s debut novel, “Of Bees and Mist,” he concocts a richly drawn, private fantasy world where he could, for once, feel perfectly at home.

This hefty book’s imaginary geography is pregnant with customs, beliefs, superstitions and folklore that have fascinated Setiawan since youth; he even incorporates in his central character Meridia a taste for Chinese “salted plums, sticky buns, (and) sweet bean curd in steaming ginger soup.” Though modern elements, such as nail salons and massage therapists, alight here, the setting is also suspended beyond time in an era that feels ancient and otherworldly – one where gold bars are deposited on doorsteps and women are strategically married off. And within his ambitious, 30-year canvas, the story arc is driven by Setiawan’s childhood, transformed into the depiction of Meridia’s prolonged feud with her mother-in-law, Eva, while her son Noah is stuck in the middle, navigating blows.

It’s an undeniably intriguing landscape, and Setiawan’s luxuriously paced descriptions and whimsical, inventive devices can be seductive. But not all readers will feel at home here. The simple narrative – led by a clairvoyant narrator who sticks close to Meridia (except for a few unnecessary and momentary slips into other points of view) – is a magical realism hybrid, despite Setiawan’s protestations that he merely siphoned multiple influences, from Chinese martial arts films to English literature, and, yes, Márquez.

In the town market, “a woman grew herbs out of her body … which customers plucked fresh with their own hands.” At Meridia’s childhood home, the stairs move about like those in “Harry Potter” films, and mirrors are “full of tricks and surprises, incapable of reflecting the plainest truth.” And each night, Meridia’s father disappears into colorful mists, while her mother is imprisoned by forgetfulness.

Yet fantastical worlds thrive only when the rules are clearly delineated, and Setiawan counts too heavily on readers’ willingness to overlook contradictions, ignore one-off events present purely for amusement and to spot details that really do have meaning. When Meridia and other characters are swarmed by “bees,” only the consistency of their appearance allows us to interpret their clever representation, while other times, such as the unexplained and unusual cameo appearance of Meridia’s imaginary friend, enchanted elements don’t fit in Setiawan’s otherwise “normal” backdrop and lack meaningful symbolism.

Setiawan doesn’t seem too concerned with ensuring that his narrative always “makes sense,” however; rather, the randomness and amalgamation of stories and superstitions are there precisely to fulfill his personal desires. So, Meridia’s father, Gabriel, disappears in mists because Setiawan likes how Chinese martial arts films use that technique, and a lecherous half-swine man who emerges late in the novel is so drawn simply because Setiawan enjoys the Javanese legend. But what amuses Setiawan isn’t always justified within the story’s integrity, so it’s a boon when midway through, the use of magical ingredients become purposeful and the rules largely defined.

If it weren’t for a grounded, authentic plot, the book might become perilously untethered. The portrait of Meridia’s struggles for independence while growing up with unusually distant parents is touchingly sketched: “Between Ravenna’s forgetfulness and Gabriel’s disdain, Meridia found herself transformed into a phantom.”

Her marriage at 16, to her first love, Daniel, is a story that pulses with life even as it delivers her into Eva’s hellishly unyielding grip. And when her sheltered naivete is shattered when she realizes that Daniel is blind to his mother’s “talent for finding faults, even when none existed,” the two families clash like Capulets and Montagues. These battles are universal, allowing a deep point of connection that’s just enough to overlook some unnecessary magical distractions.

Where Setiawan ultimately succeeds is crafting memorable, identifiable characters and an enjoyable story rooted in human emotion. For love, longing and the pain of compromise is indeed recognizable to all – no matter our culture or geography.