by Chisato Hara, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Anyone who has made an impromptu, solo trip to a hitherto unknown country will immediately recognize themselves on the opening page of Australian writer-performer Jan Cornall's Take Me to Paradise, launched on Sept. 30 during the recent Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.
Walking out of the arrival hall, the protagonist finds herself amid a sea of welcoming and searching faces -- but they are not for her. In fact, even her family back home in Australia don't know where she is.
Marilyn is a 40-something divorcee with children who is lost in her newfound singledom, although it has been several years since she left her marriage.
A librarian who aspires to become a writer, she feels like a walking cliche. So she packs a suitcase on a whim and takes a Monday morning flight to Bali, a place to which she has always longed to go.
While many travelers may choose Bali as a destination, Marilyn's motivation is simply escape -- an escape from her life, her responsibilities, her current and past relationships. Most of all, she is escaping from the person she has become, molded in large part by circumstance and obligation.
The central character stumbles through much of her five days in Bali, and the reader often watches through her eyes as she looks at events and people from outside of herself, detached and in limbo.
While Cornall's first work of prose -- she has previously written plays, poetry, songs and a screenplay -- explores underlying themes of abandonment, self-denial and loss, it is never pedantic nor forced in their treatment, and at times borders on self-effacing. Instead, what stands out is her sense of humor, one that finds the comic in all encounters, especially the absurd and awkward.
At one point, Marilyn bursts into tears in a highly public area. Uncomfortable as this scene may be (particularly for those who have had a similar experience), it does not induce embarrassment or pity. As Marilyn tries to recover and fails, somewhere within she is also laughing at herself, and so urges readers to compassion and companionable laughter.
Cornall's humor is particularly apparent in Marilyn's imagined monologues, whether to explain why she is going to Bali to the passenger beside her on the plane, or as she ponders over her past and relives experiences in full view of the reader -- such as her fumbling experiment with Internet dating.
These monologues are so honest, genuine and stark in their effortless delivery that one begins to suspect that Take Me to Paradise is semi-autobiographical. They also provide clues as to Marilyn's development, as her monologues evolve in perspective from "should have been" to "could have been", then to "could be" and finally, "will be".
The "paradise" Marilyn visits is "Schapelle's Bali" just before the second bombing, yet she demonstrates a distinct lack of expectation that makes the telling of her visit fresh. Readers familiar with the island will perhaps recall, through Marilyn's impressions, their initial trip there and how the clash of modern and traditional, Balinese and Western, and other such seemingly incongruous elements appeared vibrant, rather than jarringly kitsch.
Certainly, Marilyn is enchanted by the Bali she enters through her chance meeting with a caring and generous driver, Bagus -- and her final destination is the artisan village of Ubud.
And while she might be immersed in a magical enchantment as she tries to pick up some Indonesian terms, tastes her first snake fruit (salak) and purchases a kebaya blouse and sarong at a local market, the source of this "magic" is her free and happy, child-like curiosity and appreciation -- even for the mundane symbols of modern tourism/Bali that weave seamlessly into a temple celebration.
Cliches do abound, mostly in the people surrounding Marilyn: the yoga women who are "experts" on Bali; the middle-aged American couple; the young Balinese man who's into reggae; the young Japanese women with their Balinese holiday beaus.
But Marilyn does not have a cynical bone in her; she is not jaded, so she does not judge, but readers can definitely laugh at the caricatures of these species of tourist.
And in the end, her escape is one that turns into a journey, not so much of self-discovery as one of self-awakening -- of senses and sensuality, independence and individuality. Paradise, in this sense, exists within oneself.
Marilyn is a dreamer who discovers her strength (and courage, though she might only reluctantly attribute such a trait to herself) to make some part of her dream come true -- whether this realization is by chance, accident, or circumstance.
Part travel journal, part diary, Take Me to Paradise is a gem of a novella likely to become a well-worn travel companion.
First printed in the Jakarta Post