Book Review / Apple and Knife by Intan Paramaditha

“Her stories thrum with undercurrents of anger at the unjust hands these women are continuously dealt.”
Annie Zhang reviews Apple and Knife by Intan Paramaditha, a collection of stories which challenge our traditional notions of the heroin and her role.

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” asks the wrinkled woman in Scream in a Bottle. In this story, Gita visits a witch who bottles the screams of the women seeking out her services. “What I do, child, is offer a home for the screams. If I didn’t, the scream would evaporate and leave the woman mute forever… I keep every noise, so that it doesn’t place the kiss of death on them, so that they don’t disappear unburied.”

In Apple and Knife, Intan Paramaditha lures the reader into worlds where horror and fairy tale blend into the everyday. Dark energies and mysterious entities lurk the underbellies of Indonesia in each of these twelve subversive stories, and the voices of women become sharply heard.

The Blind Woman Without a Toe depicts a gory account of the tale of Cinderella, or Sindelarat, given by a mutilated woman. In Blood, a copywriter is assigned to work on a maxipad advertising campaign, recalling the ways in which she defied shame associated with menstruation and sexuality. Vampire tells the tale of a handsome, successful employer who attempts to seduce his employee. In The Obsessive Twist, a dangdut queen seeks vengeance against the men in her village. In the story Doors, a widow ponders her late husband’s Mercedes Tiger, which may or may not be cursed. And, in A Single Firefly, A Thousand Rats, femininity and vermin intersect in a blood-soaked, metafictional spectacle.

Paramaditha’s stories star a fascinating host of “disobedient women”—ranging from the maligned, to the merciful, to the malicious. Power struggles inevitably occur with a supporting cast of corrupt generals, affluent corporate figures, and village heads of parochial communities. Often, these side characters function as embodiments of the conservative, patriarchal forces that attempt to bring women to ruin.

Paramaditha’s narratives align femininity with the strange, dark and foul, deftly wielding the evocative power of horror to explore the multitudes contained in the female identity. She subverts our expectations and presents us with temptresses who captivate with their ugliness, surreal forms of retribution, and unsettling fusions of sex and horror. Her stories thrum with undercurrents of anger at the unjust hands these women are continuously dealt.

Epstein’s translation is deserving of high praise. Each story has been carefully rendered in language that is accessible, sharp and memorable. Epstein effectively establishes a mood of enigma and possibility, and the prose is replete with visceral gothic imagery. Thanks to the impressive efforts of both author and translator, Apple and Knife is truly a powerful, enthralling collection.

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