One of the great things about reading—and one of the big reasons I read—is that books can take us to all sorts of places we could never visit because we either don’t have the funds or we don’t have a time machine. I comb through book reviews looking for books that can be a literary travel package and jump on them. So books like The Birdwoman’s Palate, by Laksmi Pamuntjak, look like a great way to go to Indonesia when I know that I wouldn’t be able to go there because I do not do well in the heat. Also I couldn’t afford it. And also also because of Covid. Unfortunately, this book fell short. Because the plot was trying to do two different things with a protagonist who doesn’t know who she is or what she wants, The Birdwoman’s Palate never coalesced into a meaningful experience for me.
Aruna Rai works for an organization that monitors for outbreaks in Indonesia. She’s nearing the end of her contract when her boss offers her a unique opportunity. The organization has heard of strange outbreaks that aren’t really outbreaks across the island of Java. There are sporadic individual cases of avian flu here and there. No one knows what’s causing them, which is bad. But they don’t seem to be spreading, which is good. So Aruna and one of her colleagues, a veterinarian, are being sent to talk to the sick and try to find out what’s going on. This is the first plot. The second plot springs from Aruna’s dissatisfaction with the status quo. She decides to turn the fact-finding trip into a restaurant crawl with friends. She invites her chef friend, Bono, and her food critic friend, Nadezhda, to go try all the dishes they’ve wanted to try.
Once Aruna hits the road with her mismatched entourage, the story lurches from hospitals to restaurants to clinics to food carts. The tone shifts lurch from thriller-esque when Aruna encounters what appears to be a variety of corrupt practices to erudite bickering about what makes for the best Indonesian cuisine. There are also Aruna’s unsettling dreams, dreams that reveal a lot of grief, loneliness, and lack of direction.
And then The Birdwoman’s Palate ends. It ends with a whimper as Aruna leaves her job with no plans for the future. Nothing is resolved. This fizzle of an ending was even more frustrating for me because I didn’t have a good reading trip. There were moments of good writing, but they’re washed out by a lot of bland writing about food. And I mean that adjective deliberately. Pamuntjak doesn’t seem to have many adjectives for food beyond the basic sour, spicy, and sweet. I’m sure that readers more savvy than I about food will know what lemongrass and curry leaves and other common Indonesian ingredients taste like. I unfortunately have no clue, so I have to rely on description to give me hints. There weren’t enough of these, especially given the so many of the characters are raving about subtle flavors and nuanced aromas. The thriller elements didn’t go anywhere, either, so I didn’t even get that. I wish that Pamuntjak had thrown out the medical thriller plot and focused on the food and on Aruna’s character. And I really wish that there had been a solid conclusion to The Birdwoman’s Palate.