sábado, 1 de março de 2014

Francesca: a Love Story in East Timor, Indonesia


Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel begins, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Whilst her experience of life has hitherto been rather narrow and sheltered, she has benefited from a western style education in one of the Catholic schools run by Portuguese missionaries in Dili.

This places her amongst the small educated Timorese middle class of the time. Her father, who Francesca adores, works as a technician in Dili’s main radio station. As such, he is particularly well placed to discern which way the political winds are blowing, which makes it all the more of a let-down when his predictions turn out to be so hopelessly inaccurate.

Aside from her father, the other key influence in Francesca’s life are the nuns who educated her. They left her with a faith that is stretched to breaking point but somehow endures. More importantly, at least in the short term, they have instilled in her a love of languages. It is this passion, unusual for someone in her position, that enables her not only to stay alive but to build a new life for herself when she ends up in Indonesian Borneo. ...

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>> Francesca by Donald Mayo: a Love Story in East Timor, Indonesia

01 MAR 2014

The invasion of East Timor, now the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, in 1975, seen through the eyes of a young Timorese woman, is the starting backdrop of this book, but much of the love stories of this book, Francesca by Donald Mayo, play out elsewhere in Indonesia.

The transition from East Timor is managed through the journey of Francesca who manages to survive a graphically described brutal massacre of her family in Dili, by Indonesian soldiers, eventually is rescued by an Javanese Indonesian man, Hasan, who gives her safe passage to Indonesia Borneo where her English speaking ability wins her a place serving in an American expatriate’s household.

The historical context is nicely laid out in brief in a fictional conversation between Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State for the United States of America and President Ford negotiating with then-president of Indonesia, Suharto.

The negotiating parties test each other on their views of the impending invasion or intervention depending which side of the political fence this is seen from, which the Americans, sensitive to the threat of communism, do not object to, and the position of the fictional American oil company operating in Indonesia.  President Suharto justifies the military action as at the behest of the non-Fretilin parties in East Timor asking for help and as an anti-communist measure.

While there are little asides on the East Timor conflict later in Francesca by Donald Mayo, touching lightly on the failure of its leaders after the withdrawal of the Portuguese, to lead the young and vibrant nation to better things eventually leading to the action of the Indonesian army, the remainder of the book is much more love story than historical or political novel.

A a colourful array of characters stalk through the novel, ranging from the mighty Benny Surikano, the man to whom everyone turns if they need to get something done, to Peter Adisono, the able young intellectual son of a communist party intellectual who owed his position, as many did to Mr Fixit, Benny Surikano, Benny’s rather spoiled but not essentially bad son, Rollo, and the husband and wife pair who look after the expatriate household which forms the central place in the novel.

There are as many expatriate characters and the other place which features a fair bit in the novel is the clubhouse, the preserve largely of the white expatriates working in the American oil company on the Ridge.  The expatriates range from the stunningly lovely teenager, Amanda Cole, who forms half of the other love affair in the novel, to the swashbuckling Eddie Vandeberg, a pilot, and young war veteran and the Christian missionary from Oklahoma, Ron Milliner, who came to Indonesia to escape his broken marriage and live out his missionary dreams.

Against the harsher realities of life of the local Indonesians from figuring out how to bribe and how much to bribe, to prostitution to the construction workers of one of the women working as housekeeper, Donald Mayo, the author, turns out a nuanced range of emotion and character.  It is his characters’ emotional lives and how they go about getting what they want that are the driving forces in the novel, vividly described so that the book becomes a page turner.

As an ex-British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist, Donald Finnaeus Mayo writes as a best selling author would write, producing a highly readable, gripping novel, set in a location that would be exotic for many of his readers, and bringing it to life with little details and twists to the ending.

His eye for detail in describing Benny’s love for his steak sandwich, cooked “ever so slighty bloody…spread liberally with caramelised onion”…and later on to his loving thoughts on the accompanying french fries, and how it was so hard for him to tear himself away from it show a sensuous side to the story.  Sadly however, this is the only description of food in the novel, as this reviewer would have liked to taste a larger slice of local life captured in its cuisine though he does succeed well in conveying a sense of life in the noisy bustling streets.

There are surprises in the ending to Francesca so the review will stop here but to say that this is a book is recommended for general reading while travelling, while on holiday or even during daily commutes as it holds the reader’s attention effortlessly.

Squeamish readers be warned there are some graphic passages on the violence wreaked by Indonesian army troops on East Timor on civilians, though Donald Mayo refrains from tarring all army characters in the novel with the same brush, but presents a range of human actions and motivation.  Perhaps reading it prior to going to bed is not advisable as one might end up staying up rather later than one intends and arrive at work blurry eyed the next day.

Francesca by Donald Mayo, was published by Betimes Books in 2013 and can be ordered from online bookstores such as or

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