The Majesties, by Tiffany Tsao

At the outset of Tiffany Tsao’s The Majesties, Doll Worono has suffered a nearly instantaneous reversal of fortune. She was the founder of an innovative jewelry company, scion of a rich and powerful family of Chinese-Indonesians. Then, in one evening, she is poisoned along with 300 of her friends and family. She is left blind and in a coma. At least she’s not dead, like the others who had some of the shark fin soup that her sister poisoned. Even though we know who done it and how, we don’t know why. To be honest, as she lies in her hospital bed, neither does Doll.

Doll tells her story from that hospital, looking back on her life with her sister, Estella, to try and figure out where it all went wrong. Doll and Estella had every advantage in life. Their parents sent them to the finest schools. They never wanted for material comfort. The price they paid for all this luxury is that they have to toe the family line. They will work for the family company and keep the family’s secrets. For Estella, it means that she will also marry the man her family thinks is a good match, even though everyone knows he is a controlling, volatile mess of a human being.

Lurking in the background of all the family drama are questions about parasitism. Doll’s company, Bagatelle, uses a modified Cordyceps fungus to alter the behavior of insects, to turn them into living jewelry. This horrifying idea is explained away; people are told that the animals are dormant and not intelligent enough to miss anything. This idea of beautiful parasitism hung around in my brain. The idea started to blossom as I read more about the peculiar lives of the ultra-rich Chinese-Indonesians. They are isolated from the lives of people who make their lifestyles possible. They think nothing of bribing officials, firing potential unionizers, and worse. By the end of the book, it was hard not to think of the ultra-rich in the same way we think about the Cordyceps fungus.

I wrestled with the ending of this book, even as it made its thesis of parasitic capitalism more clear. Although Doll figures out her sister’s motivation to her satisfaction, I didn’t really buy it. If The Majesties had been narrated by Estella, I might have understood. This isn’t the first time I’ve read a book I felt was narrated by the wrong character. That said, I enjoyed spending time in Doll’s head as she reviews her family history and comes to terms with crimes that she had always glossed over in the past. Apart from this flaw, I enjoyed a lot of this book and would recommend it to readers looking for a twist on the usual tales of dysfunctional families.


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