In this highly acclaimed novel by the author of The Emperor's Children, life isn't all Emmy and Virginia Simpson might have hoped. When Emmy's marriage to an Australian man ends, she flees her home in Sydney for the tropical paradise of Bali to "find herself"-only to become embroiled with an eclectic crew of international misfits and smugglers. Her sister Virginia, meanwhile, has never wandered far outside of London. Prim and pious, Virginia is struggling to find meaning in her life and her aging mother thinks a visit to the Isle of Skye is just what she needs. On these two islands halfway around the world, the middle-aged sisters confront their lives and their destinies with unexpected consequences.From the Trade Paperback edition.
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May 08, 2007
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Excerpt from When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud
PROLOGUETHE GRASS AND the damp soil oozed up between Melody Simpson's toes as she picked her way to the bottom of the garden to watch her children sleeping. It was a summer night, but brisk, and she clutched her dressing-gown around her as she went, patting at her hair although it was past midnight and there was nobody to see.The clear quiet sang, almost, in Melody Simpson's ears: it was the first summer after the war, the first summer of a new life, when--battered and bruised though He might be--God was in His Heaven and all was right with the world. Melody Simpson did not believe in God, of course, except as a figure of speech. Only at moments like this she was tempted. Before she remembered the rest.Virginia and Emmy had built themselves a tent from two large sticks and an old sheet weighed down at the corners by bricks from the wasteground up the road where the end-of-terrace house had been bombed out. The tent had been Emmy's idea, but at five she was too lazy or too young to execute it, and only when Virginia, a responsible if timorous nine-year-old, had taken on the project had it become real.Melody Simpson had to squat to peer in at them. Awake, the girls were always squabbling, their natures at once as fluid as air and as fixed as concrete and, above all, eternally opposed to one another. But asleep in their singlets and knickers, beneath a tartan blanket, their small, pale arms overlapping, they seemed to share their dreams and to be content.Melody Simpson could not have described the emotion she felt in this small hour of this free summer morning. She would not remember it, or not specifically. There may have been birds singing, and the breeze may have been full of the honeysuckle that grew along the wall, but Melody Simpson did not notice. What she felt was a longing, in her limbs and her belly and in her spirit, for her daughters' futures, for every joy or triumph that swirled in their dormant imaginations as well as in her own. Was this love? Or greed? Or selfishness? Or pain? Or the anticipation of certain disappointment? Had she believed in God, she might have deemed it a moment of prayer. But she didn't, and didn't. And being the sort of person who thought such reflection a tedious waste of time, she tugged a little at their blanket, by way of maternal rearrangement, and then tiptoed back across the lawn and up to her own solitary bed.BALIBALI IS NOT a big island: it is fifty miles wide at its widest, and at most ninety miles long. But it is big enough to get lost on. Kuta Beach, the tourist resort on the island's south coast, must only be a couple of miles in diameter, but one can get lost there, too, amid crazy alleyways of bars and brothels and pirate tape shops, or along the crowded hillocks of sand patrolled by hawkers and deal-makers and old women offering massages. The Balinese, remarkably adaptable, have simply severed Kuta Beach from the island, like amputating a limb--in their minds, of course. To go to Kuta Beach is, for a Balinese, to leave Bali. It is so simple.The real Bali, then, is to be found higher up or further out, along narrow, winding roads or in emerald rice paddies or over on the destitute, lava-scarred eastern plain where the tourists never go. In all these places that are 'really' Bali, the watchful, angry mountain Agung dominates. There are other, smaller mountains--Abang for the devout, Batur for tourists. But Agung is the mountain of the gods, fierce, unpredictable givers and takers of life. Everything depends on Agung, and everyone is situated by it.Not to know where you are, not to know where the mountain is: in Balinese there is a word for this, palang. To be palang is to be paralysed: not to be able to work or to dance or to sleep. Orientation and order are everything. Everyone has a place.Emmy Simpson Richmond, at forty-seven years of age, was palang. She stopped at the stall in the bend of the road and pointed at a bottle of 7UP. She would have preferred a slice of green mango with salt, or a rambutan, but there was none of the latter and the mango was being sampled by three large black flies. Before Emmy could stop her, the woman stallholder dunked a greasy glass in the drum of water at her side to rinse the dust, and poured the soda into it. The woman was smiling, it would have been rude not to accept, but Emmy wasn't pleased: her stomach had been holding out so well, despite everyone's warnings, and it seemed a shame to risk it for a drink she didn't really even want.Thick and sweet and fizzy, the 7UP sucked any moisture she had left in her mouth as it went down. She turned her back on the woman and the stall as she drank, looking instead at the great drop on the far side of the road and the view beyond. She was halfway between Penelokan and Kintamani, or so she thought, having decided to walk the eight kilometres rather than pay the cost of a hotel room to ride in a bemo bus. The drivers had laughed at her and, it was true, she now worried that she wouldn't get to Kintamani until after dark. Already the sun was falling low in the sky.She was looking at two mountains, Batur and Abang, different worlds on either side of a lake. The lake had glistened, earlier, but now emanated darkness, as though with the passage of the sun the spirits rose from its depths to skim across the surface.Batur, directly in front of Emmy, was how she imagined Hell to be: a barren, blackened cone of lava, rising in relentless symmetry from the lake's west shore. Nothing grew on its slopes, except the curving tracks where tourists passed daily to the summit. Emmy hadn't been there and would not go, but she could imagine the soft black sand and hard black rock against which the climbers had to struggle, without a single shrub for shade.To the east of the lake rose Abang, or what one could see of it. All afternoon, although the sky had been otherwise unblemished, a hazy cloud mass had shrouded the holier of the two mountains. Abang was said to be lush with vegetation, a tropical rainforest even, and in the wet season inundated with spilling rivers that prevented climbers from reaching the ancient temple at the top. Now, however, in the drier months of June and July, Balinese and some Javanese students made pilgrimages to the temple, to make offerings and to pray.Emmy was determined to make the climb. Very few tourists did, although Emmy wasn't sure why not. No doubt the Balinese were more reluctant to take tourists there than to Batur: the Balinese, Emmy had discovered, had a strong sense of the sacred.A Frenchman in her losmen in Candi Dasa, a man alone like herself, and with the same forlorn air of one suddenly deserted by life, had given her the name of a flute-playing guide in Kintamani who would, the man promised, take her wherever she wanted to go. Which is how Emmy found herself at this bend in the road an untold number of kilometres from Kintamani, with the tropical night, deeper and blacker than other nights, preparing to fall.Using two words of her guidebook Indonesian, she turned back to the woman at the stall and asked her how far it was to the village: the woman raised a hand: five fingers. When Emmy had asked the girl selling postcards over an hour before, she, too, had raised a hand. Emmy felt a fool for the money she hadn't wanted to spend, and also, suddenly, for the caprice that had brought her to this pass in the first place. She thanked the woman and set off up the empty road.There was no traffic at all, except for a pair of gaunt and hungry-looking dogs with patchy fur, headed in the opposite direction with an apparent sense of purpose. Emmy heard the bemo coming up behind her before she saw it, the rattling blue carcass of a truck, with wooden benches on its bed and a makeshift roof, a wall-eyed ticket collector dangling precariously from the back running-board. Emmy flagged it down.The benches were full, and a mother took her son on her lap so that Emmy could sit down.'Terri makasi,' said Emmy. 'Thank you.''English?' a man opposite asked. He was Western, in his late thirties, clean-cut, obviously not English himself.'Yes and no. Used to be. I've lived in Australia so many years now . . .' she trailed off, smiled.'I see.' He smiled back. His teeth were very pointy, and this, combined with the close cropping of his hair and the unusual breadth of his skull, gave him a devilish air. 'I am German, myself.'Emmy nodded. She didn't know what to say to that.'You're going to Kintamani.' He said it as a statement. 'To climb Batur.''No,' she said. 'Abang, actually. I hope.'He raised an eyebrow. 'That is adventurous of you. Have you a guide?''The name of one.''I've been living a month in Kintamani,' the man said, 'and not one expedition has gone up Abang. Batur, daily. Abang, no.''I know. That's why I want to. That's not the only reason, of course, but . . .''You do much sports, yes?' He looked her up and down. Emmy put her hands over her bare knees and glanced around the bus. The others, although they doubtless understood little or no English, were watching the exchange intently. 'I say this,' said the German, 'because it is quite a difficult climb. It is three hours.'The bemo bounced to a halt. 'This is the centre,' the German said. 'If you want a lomen, this is where you should get off. I live further along, past the playing-field on the way out of town. Goodnight.''Yes, thank you. Goodnight.'The village was unlike the seaside towns that Emmy had seen; unlike Ubud, even, or the smaller villages through which she had passed. It could not have been less like Penelokan, its neighbour down the road, where whitewashed cottages nestled on a shelf above the lake, and Western-style restaurants with resident gamelan orchestras welcomed busloads of visitors daily.Kintamani depressed her. Stained concrete buildings with little windows lined the dusty street. Bali's ubiquitous dogs sniffed at trodden peel and cabbage leaves, and stick-legged children with high spots of colour on their cheeks scuttled from doorway to doorway, rather than playing boisterously in the road as they did elsewhere. And in the moments that she stood looking, as the bemo jostled on up the hill, Emmy noticed that it was getting cold.Finding the three losmen huddled in a row was not difficult, except that then Emmy had to choose one. Although she had, until now, sought out places on the island with few tourists, she had not been anywhere where there appeared to be none, save the sinister German--whose reasons for settling in Kintamani for a month she didn't want to know.The losmen looked not like guest houses at all but like typical Balinese households: there were no guests in sight. Emmy couldn't help but think, despite guidebook assurances about the Balinese love of Western tourists, that in truth she was despised. So she was afraid. Afraid, too, to be a woman alone, here; the horrible question, 'You married? You married?'--to which Emmy had to restrain herself from saying, 'Not any more'--had been asked everywhere she had been on the island. Here, nobody came up to her and asked; nobody approached her at all, not even to sell the oranges they carried in piles upon their heads. For the first time in her two weeks in Bali, she felt alone. More than that, she felt divorced. By and from everyone.In the gloom of the third losmen, Emmy discerned a Western man, missed at first because his back was to the doorway. He was playing with a child. The game consisted of her running across the room to him--a stumbling little run; the girl was not more than two or three--and his lifting her off the ground. Each time he lifted her he said, soothingly, 'There's my pretty little one, there's my beauty.' And the little girl would squeal.Emmy crossed from the dusk into the unlit salon, and the child's mother emerged from the shadows. Yes, there was a room; would Emmy like to see it? She led Emmy back behind the sitting-room, where two more children sat eating their supper, to a courtyard that served also as a garage. Off it were half a dozen rooms, one obviously larger, with the door ajar. Emmy saw a grandmother sitting there, chewing betel, and assumed it was where the family lived. The woman unlocked the door next to it and handed her the key.The naked bulb hanging from the ceiling revealed a concrete box, slightly longer than the bare and mouldy mattress on which Emmy now sat, and about twice as wide. Once painted pale green, the concrete was flaking in places, and the corners were festooned with cobwebs. There was no window, other than a slatted opening above the door.As she examined the two scratchy blankets at the base of the bed--for lice? for fleas?--Emmy thought of home, of her comfortable bedroom and of the crispness of her newly washed linen. This room, this whole experience, was for someone Portia's age, surely? How ironic to think that she, Emmy, was here, while her daughter basked in the comforts of Emmy's house in Double Bay. Even now, while Emmy sat shivering beneath a bare lightbulb, watching a centipede ripple earnestly across the floor, Portia was doubtless reclining in her--Emmy's--bed, with Pietro at her side. They were probably, Emmy thought, crossly stamping on the centipede, soiling the sheets.She put on long trousers and a cotton pullover and ventured out to the sitting-room. A lamp had been lit in one corner, shedding a dim light. The man whose presence was responsible for her own was still seated with his back to the door. He was reading an ancient copy of National Geographic, left by some other traveller, some other year. The woman was not in evidence, nor were her children; rather, an Indonesian couple with a baby sat at the table where the children had been eating. They were talking quietly, but nodded as she passed.