By Kathy Rowland
(760 words, 4-minute read)
This review may contain spoilers.
Tiffany Tsao’s The Majesties begins with a horrific mass murder. Three hundred guests at the 80th birthday of Irwan Sulinado are poisoned, deadly fungi slipped into the shark’s fin soup by Estella, Irwan’s granddaughter. The guests are all part of Indonesia’s elite Chinese business community, the fabulously wealthy inter-generational Sulinado clan and their business and political associates. There is a sole survivor, Gwendolyn (Doll), Estella’s sister, who must now make sense of her beloved sister’s actions. The only problem is that Doll is comatose, the poison having immobilised her body. Her mind remains vibrantly alive and it is through her memories of the family’s troubled past that the novel works its way towards a revelation.
We learn that whilst organising the party, the sisters chance upon information that leads them to question the fate of their beloved Aunty Sandra who vanished when they were children. They embark on a journey to solve the mystery, hoping to find the ‘antidote to our evil’, the corruption and abuse that form the bedrock of the family’s wealth and privilege.
Indeed there is in the sisters’ relationship this theme of resistance to the dark pull of family. In Doll’s telling, we see that the sisters share a close bond, but in adulthood, Doll begins to cultivate her own identity in contrast to Estella. Estella is the ‘good’ daughter, whose natural instinct is compliance – be it to the demands of family, her social class or her cruel husband, Leonard.
Doll, in turn, is the fearless rebel who defies expectations and fights against the system. Taking an idea her sister originated but was too timid to pursue, Doll creates exquisite bagatelles, fashion accessories that are the toast of Paris Fashion Week. Where Estella’s life is doomed by her inability to make free choices, Doll appears to gain independence by resisting the gravitational pull of the family. Doll presents as the natural protagonist and the rightful narrator. Our view of Estella and the various family members who form the Sulinado family and business empire are shaped solely by her. She speaks with acuity and self-reflection about the bind of being a wealthy minority.
Yet, as we learn more about the family, it appears that breaking free is illusive. All the characters seem to be immobilised, trapped in their worlds despite various attempts to break free. Leonard finds religion and tries to destroy his way towards redemption, but fails. Aunt Sandra’s escape from the family reduces rather than ennobles her. While Doll is critical of the family’s history of exploitation and survival at all costs, her own venture, established through a leg up from the family, is dependent on a dark art too. The bagatelles are living insects, ossified by a fungus that extends their life but confines them to a velvet-encased existence.
Like her creations, Doll is now kept alive by life support, but trapped. The more we learn about the sisters, the more we feel like Doll’s physical paralysis is the manifestation of a deeper malaise that plagues her family and all in their orbit. This sense of fragile perfection that can only survive through desensitisation could well be applied to the Indonesian Chinese community which forms the backdrop of The Majesties. Tsao skilfully paints on a large social and political canvas, yet never overwhelms the reader with the weight of Indonesia’s complicated history. The cultivation of political allies that allowed the Chinese Indonesian community to thrive despite sustained racism, the 1997 economic collapse and the brutal attacks on them, and the insurality of the wealthy are illustrated through the lens of the family and their associates.
We see both the questionable ways that the community maintains its powerful position, but also the precarity of its elevated position in Indonesia. On a trip to view the Monarch butterflies in California, the sisters learn that the migratory butterflies survive the cold by clustering together. Survival is dependent on the group protecting each other, a tribalism that we encounter in the novel. At its most base, unspeakable crimes are committed in the name of preservation.
There is an unflinching realism at the heart of this novel that is brutally pessimistic. This is not a criticism. The Majesties suggest that the cost of survival for those in the minority is collective protection at all costs. This is the bind that the characters find themselves in: resisting the darker aspects of self-preservation is self-annihilation. Yet, while compliance seems to ensure continuity, the price is a split subject. The question of how long these inner conflicts can be contained before they spill out is central to the novel.
The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao is published by Atria Books. Purchase online here.
Kathy Rowland is the managing editor of ArtsEquator.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.