Book review: Erni Salleh's The Java Enigma a diverting adventure that mines South-east Asia's rich history

Erni Salleh has woven her scholarly knowledge of the region's complex web of trade, cultural and religious connections into her story. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS



By Erni Salleh

Epigram Books/Paperback/198 pages/$26.64/Available at

3.5 stars

Author Erni Salleh's debut novel landed on my desk just as I was lamenting the lack of a pulp thriller set against South-east Asia's deep maritime history.

Add a librarian protagonist and the nerd in me did a happy dance.

The Java Enigma tells the tale of Irin Omar, a librarian working in Yogyakarta on conserving the famed Borobudur complex.

Her sailor father dies and leaves a cryptic puzzle for Irin: a combination lock. The clue leads to an ancient map with missing sections and Irin's quest to read the map sends her bouncing around the world, from Malaysia to Paris to the Netherlands. Throw in her father's old friend, a retired captain with his own secrets and a potential romantic interest in the shape of a hunky salvage diver, and you get all the elements for a diverting beach read you can finish in a day.

Blurbs for this finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2020 make the inevitable comparisons to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and celluloid swashbuckler Indiana Jones. The comparison to the former does a disservice to Erni since her prose is much less turgid than Brown's famously clunky prose. While the globetrotting and marine archaeology in this book does offer some adventurous moments, forget the heart-pounding action sequences that are a signature of the Indiana Jones movies. The affectionate if fraught relationship between Irin and her divorced parents take up as much narrative space as the treasure hunt, and the pacing is more a brisk walk than a frantic sprint.

What I do appreciate about The Java Enigma is the deft way Erni has woven her scholarly knowledge of the region's complex web of trade, cultural and religious connections into her story. Much as I loath Brown, his success introduced a mass readership to Renaissance history and made art history compelling. There is potential in Erni's creation for an accessible pop history series that sneaks in lessons about South-east Asian heritage under the cover of action adventures.

The best bits in this book involve speculations about the architect of Borobudur, and the intriguing traces of lost civilisations that connect Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The use of Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia is worked in fairly seamlessly into the fabric of the story which is unabashed about the depth and diversity of this region's indigenous cultures.

Now when is the next book in the series coming please?

If you like this, read Singaporean writer Neon Yang's Tensorate series with a distinctively South-east Asian sensibility, written under the name of J. Y. Yang. Start with The Black Tides Of Heaven (Tor, 2017, $25.96, available at which tells the story of a pair of twins endowed with prophetic and "slackcraft" magic abilities, in a world populated with nagas and ruled by an Empress Cixi-meets-Darth Vader dictator.

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