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Troppo Madelaine Dickie (Fremantle Press, 2016)

I had the pleasure of meeting Madeline Dickie at the TAG Hungerford Award ceremony in March last year. It turns out she’s a good friend of a school friend of mine. She was announced as the winner that night and I’ve been looking forward to her novel coming out since.

Troppo’s first person narrator is Penny, an Australian in her early twenties who’s returned to Indonesia escaping the boredom of her career-focused older boyfriend, Josh, and the sterility of life in Perth. She lives for surfing, adventure, and the excitement of new people. “Risk,” Penny writes, “always make things sharper, throws into contrast the highs and lows, gives clarity. As a surfer, I know this, I’ve lived this. Living in Perth, like a sleepwalker, I’ve missed this.” Penny is drawn to a new man and is torn between her attraction to him and her loyalty to Josh. At the same time, she’s about to begin a new job at a resort run by Shane, an expat with a reputation as a psycho whose business is the focal point of growing tension between the “bules” and the locals.

There’s an element of Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about Shane and the early chapters feel, in a good way, a little like Marlow’s journey toward a confrontation with the “troppo” madman. Then Penny ventures to the resort ahead of time and the narrative moves in a less linear fashion. In Shane, Dickie has succeeded in creating a dangerous and fascinating character.

Penny is an interesting character too – overwhelmingly physical and tough, yet also self-reflective. She’s looking for the meaning of life just as much as the bookish characters I usually read and write about, but she’s finding it in a different sphere. She’s colloquial but obviously smart. The complexity of her character is revealed in her unlikely penchant for poetry which comes out at several points of the narrative and culminates in a reading of a poem by Geoffrey Lehmann. Too often I think the “rules” of fiction require writers to make characters consistent to the point of reductionism for the sake of verisimilitude; this aspect of Penny is an interesting resistance to this.

Troppo is a celebration of Indonesia. It’s a place which must hold magic for Dickie, and she captures its allure for her, its beauty, dangers, and dirt. “The night air is sticky as cut mango.”  “Hear the sea somewhere below, churning tissues and turds.” Even Bali-belly is a spiritual exercise of a kind: “It’s almost like you have to unlearn everything you know… The first bad nasi campur and you come unravelled. It’s only after hitting battery acid bile that you can start to reweave your resistance, unpick and restitch.” There’s almost an edge of the evangelistic at certain points. “Here, the old people aren’t shut away. They continue to be part of the community.”

I like the short, punchy chapters. They suit Penny and they suit the setting. It’s a novel which is paced both fast and slow; at one level, there’s a lot happening, and yet a lot of it is conversation, speculation, and anticipation. Conversation is actually a major theme – Penny’s fascinated by the idea and rituals of conversation – how locals talk, how expats talk, who’s a good conversationalist and who’s not.

Troppo is a novel which captures the spirit of many people’s early twenties. As well as a compelling depiction of life in Indonesia, it’s an important exploration of Australian identity, as revealed in our complex and problematic relationship with our neighbour. What’s more, it’s a page-turning, accessible read.