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Book Review: ‘The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok’ by Mark Heyward

Book Review: 'The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok' by Mark Heyward
Book Review: 'The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok' by Mark Heyward

‘The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok’ – Published by Monsoon Books (2023)

Mark Heyward, in his book The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok, tells the story of building a family home on the Indonesian island of Lombok. However, he has achieved much more than this — through this story, we learn of his Indonesian family, of his 30 years of living in Indonesia, of the people of the island of Lombok, of their different religions, of their daily lives, and of the seasons which affect this tropical paradise. He has structured his book around these seasons and the chapters, including The Burning Season, The Season of the Wind, The Rainy Season, The Season of the Sea, and The Season of the Sun.

Enchanting View of Lombok
Enchanting View of Lombok

The island of Lombok lies immediately east and is only 25 kilometres from the island of Bali. As Heyward explains, it was originally populated by the Malay Sasak people who follow the form of Islam first brought to Indonesia by early Arab traders in the 15th century. However, the west coast of the island where Mark lives was occupied in later centuries by the Hindu Balinese. Overlain by these two peoples are communities of Chinese and Arab traders and, later on, a wave of Western expatriates who, for various reasons, decided to live on the island.

The people of Lombok live their lives like people on any other island. Babies are born, children are raised, young folk flirt and marry, old folk grow old and die. Each day the sun rises and falls. The rains come and go. The tides pull back and forth. The rice is planted, bright and green. Four months later it is harvested, fat and golden. The village folk go about their business, sweeping their yards, scolding their children and arguing with their husbands. Each day is punctuated with simple meals, temple offerings and the call to prayer. And in this way, the business of life is negotiated. There is comfort in the sameness of this life, in its slowness, in its routines and familiarity. And life for me is measured in the changing of the seasons, the falling of the leaves, the coming of the rains – another Christmas and another Ramadan.

Mark Heyward
Mark Heyward

Heyward and his Indonesian wife live in a rented home, but fall in love with some land, high on a ridge, cut by a seasonal stream and surrounded by tangled banyan fig trees that look west across the Lombok Strait towards Bali and the peak of the Mount Agung’s volcano. Heyward lovingly describes the nature of this terrain, its trees and plants, the animal and bird life it supports, its sunset views and their dream of building a family home in this magical location.

The site consists of two blocks, one on each side of a seasonal stream … Halfway across our block, the stream cuts through a rocky shelf and curls around the base of a huge, tangled banyan fig tree. Beneath a screen of dangling aerial roots, an ancient-looking well is cradled in the tree’s gnarled ground roots. A flat rock has been positioned above the well, a place for washing and perhaps prayer. The place smells of tradition, of mystery and hidden meanings: a little dank in the perpetual shade of the banyan tree, dim beneath the remnant forest giants that line the stream with their buttressed roots and attendant ferns.

As you would expect, land titles are not always well documented in Indonesia and negotiations are often difficult, but this allows us to meet the different landowners, of different ethnicities, and observe the skill of his Indonesian wife in navigating through these potential hazards, at the same time as her expat husband has to remain hidden from view.

The process of house construction begins with the ‘breaking of the soil’ at the end of September and at the end of the dry season with a communal Muslim ceremony held with their new neighbours. Weeks later, the arrival of the rainy season means the reinvigoration of the land and allows for the planting of grasses and various plants to stabilise the terrain after the building of an access road and the levelling of the building site. The house itself is to be constructed from recycled teak originally used to build a traditional Javanese Joglo house, which the Heywards had acquired years earlier in Central Java. The construction takes more than a year and allows us to follow the seasons from dry to wet, and wet to dry as the winds change from east to west and then to the east again until the Heyward family can move into their dream home just before Christmas the following year.

The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok
The Glass Islands: A Year in Lombok

In this book, Mark Heyward eloquently describes his love of family and his love of Indonesia, through this heart-warming story of how he and his wife build a new life and a new house on the island of Lombok. During this process he allows us to better understand the people of his adopted community, the influences of different religions on these peoples, and the seasons that govern their lives and the planting of their fields.

Some things never change. The love of a man for his wife, for his children; his need to leave a mark on this earth; to build; to plant a garden, to make a home; his urge to write, to sing songs, to tell stories; his fear of death, his love of life.

Don’t miss the opportunity to immerse yourself in this enthralling description of one family’s life on the Indonesian island of Lombok!

Writer bio: 

Ian Burnet has lived, worked, and travelled in Indonesia for over 50 years and is the author of five books about maritime history and the Indonesian archipelago, including Spice Islands, East Indies, Archipelago, Where Australia Collides with Asia and Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages.

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