16 Best Books Set In Indonesia You Must Read

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If you’re looking for a list of best books set in Indonesia, you’ll get an extensive list of different genres in this post! 

I’ve been to Indonesia three times, and each time, i’ve visited a new region (Yogyakarta, Jakarta and Bali).

Indonesia is an archipelago rich with history, culture, religion, and political drama – a perfect backdrop for compelling stories and immersive plotlines. 

Whether you’re looking for a light holiday read, a deeply emotive tear-jerker, or maybe an action-packed piece of historical fiction – look no further!

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16 Best Books Set in Indonesia

Here are 16 of some of the best books set in Indonesia that you need to add to your reading list.

1. The Sea Speaks His Name by Leila S Chudori

Summary: The tragic yet inspiring story of a group of friends, all young and idealistic political activists who faced the iron fist of power in the waning days of the Suharto regime, in the late 1990s.

In the twilight hours of a day in March, Biru Laut was ambushed by four unknown men. Together with his friends, Daniel, Sunu and Alex, he was taken to an unknown location. For months they were held captive, interrogated, beaten and tortured into answering one sole question: Who stood behind the rebellious student movements at that time?

Biru Laut’s younger sister, who, along with other family members of kidnapped student activists, struggled to put the pieces of the puzzle together and to find answers to their never-ending questions. While her parents appear to be in denial and remain hopeful that Biru Laut will one day come back to sit at the family table again, Asmara Jati engages alongside the Missing Persons Commission Team led by Aswin Pradana in order to strive to find traces of those who went missing and to record the testimonies of those who returned.

This stirring story of Biru Laut and his friends is the story of the desaparecidos of Indonesia. It is the story of a momentous—and still seldom written about—period of Indonesian history that led to the end of dictatorship in Indonesia.

Why You Should Read It

If you love a good tear-jerker, you’ll be in for a treat with ‘The Sea Speaks His Name’.

Set in the late 1990s, towards the tail-end of Suharto’s rule, this Indonesian novel is a political tour-de-force, packed with action, moments of tenderness, and mourning for the brave souls and student activists who were taken by the regime.

This book is both a remembrance and a celebration of those who stood up for the vision of Indonesia that they believed the country deserved. 

Without a doubt, this is one of the more moving books about Indonesia that you’ll want to add to your reading list!

2. The Java Enigma by Erni Salleh

Summary: After missing her father’s funeral, Irin Omar finds her orderly librarian life with the Borobudur restoration project turned upside down as she inherits a safe deposit box containing an unknown item as part of her father’s will. Chasing answers across Asia and Europe, her historical knowledge and love for her father persists as she tries to uncover some of the archipelago’s biggest hidden secrets, while discovering a few familial skeletons of her own.

Why You Should Read It
A lot of readers have likened this book to ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown. If you’re a fan of plots driven by secrets, puzzles, and codes that hail, in nature, from religion – you’ll definitely enjoy ‘The Java Enigma’.

This is a short, yet erudite read, perfect as a travel companion on your next holiday. 

The gallivanting storyline, with the protagonist hopping from country to country, is definitely one that would suit the vibe of reading by the hotel pool, or in the departure lounge before a flight.

3. Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

Summary: The epic novel Beauty Is a Wound combines history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor, and romance in a sweeping polyphony. The beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead. Kurniawan’s gleefully grotesque hyperbole functions as a scathing critique of his young nation’s troubled past: the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million “Communists,” followed by three decades of Suharto’s despotic rule.

Beauty Is a Wound astonishes from its opening line: “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years…” Drawing on local sources—folk tales and the all-night shadow puppet plays, with their bawdy wit and epic scope—and inspired by Melville and Gogol, Kurniawan’s distinctive voice brings something luscious yet astringent to contemporary literature.

Why You Should Read It

As one of the more well-known books by Indonesian authors, Beauty is a Wound is a historical fiction that spans a century of the country’s violent history. 

What makes it really unique is how it incorporates the writing style of a local legend, setting it apart from the rest of the books in this category.

With an enchantingly diverse range of characters and storylines that bleed into one another, you’ll definitely be kept on your toes with every page. 

This is a great book especially for fans of unapologetically dark, yet humorous writing.

4. Nusantara: A Sea Of Tales by Heidi Shamsuddin

Summary: A collection of fairy tales, folklore, fables, myths, epics, legends, wonder and magic tales from all around Southeast Asia.

Nusantara – A Sea of Tales is the most comprehensive collection of folktales, fairy tales, myths and legends from the Nusantara and Southeast Asian region, and was written to sit alongside the great anthologies of folklore from other parts of the world.

Although it is impossible to trace the origins of most of these traditional tales, we do know that these stories were used as a means to discover ourselves and the world around us. Like a living creature, these tales came into existence at some point, and have since evolved and adapted to suit the needs of the community that it finds itself in. The seafaring nature of the people in this region has no doubt contributed to the spread of these tales and explains the fascinating variations across Southeast Asia.

Why You Should Read It

Another read to add to the list of best books set in Indonesia is this captivating collection of stories and mythical tales around countries that share the Austronesean language. 

Some of these countries are – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand, the Philippines, East Timor, Madagascar, Taiwan and Guam

You’ll love this if you’re a fan of classical beloved folktales and the feelings of nostalgia they evoke.

Not only are the stories reminiscent of what we’ve come to know and love from childhood, they also offer deeper insights into these tales, allowing us to read further between the lines.

Both enchanting and magical in equal measure, you won’t want to miss this one!

5. Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

Summary: A wry, affecting tale set in a small town on the Indonesian coast, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families and of Margio, a young man ordinary in all particulars except that he conceals within himself a supernatural female white tiger. The inequities and betrayals of family life coalesce around and torment this magical being. An explosive act of violence follows, and its mysterious cause is unraveled as events progress toward a heartbreaking revelation.

Lyrical and bawdy, experimental and political, this extraordinary novel announces the arrival of a powerful new voice on the global literary stage.

Why You Should Read It

This explosive Indonesian novel starts with the murder of Anwar Sadat, a man in a small Indonesian village. 

From there, you will be taken on a journey into the protagonist’s past, where the truth behind the murder will slowly unravel.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. It is vivid, gory, and downright heartbreaking at times, especially the elements that touch on family trauma, domestic abuse, and poverty. 

Interestingly, Eka Kurniawan’s style is such that he will somehow incorporate humour into this emotionally complex mix, thus adding depth and nuance to the writing.

Truly a unique and refreshing literary experience that you won’t want to put down!

6. This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Summary: Minke is a young Javanese student of great intelligence and ambition. Living equally among the colonists and colonized of 19th-century Java, he battles against the confines of colonial strictures. It is his love for Annelies that enables him to find the strength to embrace his world.

Why You Should Read It

It is no surprise that Pramoedya Ananta Toer, hailed as a legendary author in his homeland of Indonesia, has arguably produced one of the best Indonesian books in the country’s archive – ‘This Earth of Mankind’.

Set in the waning days of Dutch colonial rule, this is a powerful story about injustice, oppression, and political awakening.

The protagonist, Minke, becomes the first Javanese boy to ever attend an elite Dutch colonial high school. Through a mutual friend, he meets and falls in love with a Dutchman’s daughter. 

He moves into their home soon after, triggering a cascade of events, inciting family drama – of which forms the heart of this book.

With an astounding 4.41 rating on Goodreads, this is a compelling and fascinating read that you’ll want to add to your list of books about Indonesia!

Do note that this is the first book out of the buru quartet.

7. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

Summary: A celebrated writer’s irresistible, candid, and eloquent account of her pursuit of worldly pleasure, spiritual devotion, and what she really wanted out of life

Around the time Elizabeth Gilbert turned thirty, she went through an early-onslaught midlife crisis. She had everything an educated, ambitious American woman was supposed to want—a husband, a house, a successful career. But instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed with panic, grief, and confusion. She went through a divorce, a crushing depression, another failed love, and the eradication of everything she ever thought she was supposed to be.

To recover from all this, Gilbert took a radical step. In order to give herself the time and space to find out who she really was and what she really wanted, she got rid of her belongings, quit her job, and undertook a yearlong journey around the world—all alone. Eat, Pray, Love is the absorbing chronicle of that year.

Why You Should Read It
Many will know of the 2010 cinematic hit ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ starring Julia Roberts.

A lesser known fact is that it was originally a book written by Elizabeth Gilbert based on actual events about her year-long journey of self-discovery, healing and spiritual exploration.

‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is a marvelous and delightful read that will transport you to the ashrams of India, the delicious culinary settings of Italy, and the leisurely cultural landscapes of Indonesia, cementing its place as one of the best books set in Indonesia.

8. Fall Baby by Lakshmi Pamuntjak

best books set in indonesia

Summary: The truth of her own origins, as well as the deep, dark secret that enveloped the lives of her parents will change her world. Srikandi—who prefers to be called by her nickname, Siri—is a globe trotting conceptual artist. She is shy, a little introverted and inquisitive. She is also worldly, intelligent, free-spirited and the loneliest woman on the planet. Siri’s personal life, however, defies even her own imagination. Married young but now a widow with an adopted daughter, Siri is forced to confront her beliefs and understanding of family, self, and the world. Will she be able to reconcile with the violence in her parent’s past to move forward in the changing world?

Why You Should Read It

This is one of the many novels set in Indonesia during the 1965 anti-communist massacres.

Fall Baby is a book that follows two women, Siri and Dara. One is a globetrotting visual artist, and the other is a human right’s activist. 

Just when Siri’s career is about to take off in Berlin, an unexpected news summons her back to her hometown of Jakarta.

This is a story that not only contains rich references to the arts and Indonesian history, but also grapples with the deeply difficult topics of family, motherhood, identity, and female friendships.

9. The Question of Red by Lakshmi Pamuntjak

Summary: Amba was named after a tragic figure in Indonesian mythology, and she spends her lifetime trying to invent a story she can call her own. When she meets two suitors who fit perfectly into her namesake’s myth, Amba cannot help but feel that fate is teasing her.

Salwa, respectful to a fault, pledges to honor and protect Amba, no matter what. Bhisma, a sophisticated, European-trained doctor, offers her sensual pleasures and a world of ideas.

But military coups and religious disputes make 1960s Indonesia a place of uncertainty, and the chaos strengthens Amba’s pursuit of freedom. The more Amba does to claim her own story, the better she understands her inextricable bonds to history, myth, and love.

Why You Should Read It

If you’re interested in reading Fall Baby, I would recommend you to read The Question of Red first as it follows the story of Siri’s parents, Amba and Bhisma (although both novels can be read as standalones).

The author adopts character names and mythology from the Mahabharata. In this epic, Bhisma, a warrior kidnaps Amba who is betrothed to King Salwa. Amba falls in love with her captor and he loves her as well.

Similarly, in the book, Amba and Bhisma’s unrequited love story is the result of political instability in Indonesia during the 1960s.

This novel set in Indonesia is my all-time favourite read (I will always recommend this book to anyone who loves Asian literature). I wept a lot reading this painful love story and it is definitely one of those books that you wish you could have read again for the first time.

10. Cigarette Girl by Ratih Kumala

best books set in indonesia

Summary: Mr. King is dying. In waiting for death, he calls the name of a woman who is not his wife; Jeng Yah. His three children, heirs of Djagad Raja Kretek, were consumed with dismay. The mother was burning with jealousy especially because her husband’s last request was to meet Jeng Yah. So raced with the angel of death, Lebas, Karim, and Tegar, they went to remote areas of Java to look for Jeng Yah, before death took his father.

The journey is like a trajectory of business and family secrets. Lebas, Karim and Tegar met an old vanity (pelinting) worker and uncovered the origins of Djagad Raja’s kretek until it became the number 1 kretek in Indonesia. More than that, the three of them also know the story of their father’s love with Jeng Yah, who turns out to be the owner of Kretek Gadis, a local kretek Kota M which was famous in his day.

Did Lebas, Karim and Tegar finally find Jeng Yah?

Kretek Girls don’t just tell stories about love and the search for identity of the characters. With the backdrop of Kota M, Kudus, Jakarta, from the Dutch colonial period to independence, Girl Kretek will bring readers acquainted with the development of the kretek industry in Indonesia. Rich in the smell of tobacco. Filled with the scent of love.

Why You Should Read It

Cigarette Girl follows three generations of two Javanese families, set against the backdrop of significant milestones in Indonesia’s history – from the Dutch surrender to the Japanese in 1942, to the communist massacres of 1965, before finally bringing us to the present day.

This captivating fictional novel touches on Indonesian folklore, beliefs, contemporary social attitudes and is an unflinching exploration of political and historical events. 

Cigarette Girl is undoubtedly one of the best books set in Indonesia to gain a comprehensive idea of the country’s history, culture, and background.

11. Paper Boats by Dee Lestari

Summary: She’s a free-spirited dreamer. He’s a brilliant painter. But now their shared passion for art has turned into something deeper…

For as long as she can remember, Kugy has loved to write. Whimsical stories are her passion, along with letters full of secret longings that she folds into paper boats and sets out to sea. Now that she’s older, she dreams of following her heart and becoming a true teller of tales, but she decides to get a “real job” instead and forget all about Keenan, the guy who makes her feel as if she’s living in one of her own fairy tales.

Sensitive and introverted, Keenan is an aspiring artist, but he feels pressured to pursue a more practical path. He’s drawn to Kugy from first sight: she’s unconventional, and the light radiating from her eyes and the warmth of her presence pull him in.

They seem like a perfect match—both on and off the page—but revealing their secret feelings means risking their friendship and betraying the people they love most. Can they find the courage to admit their love for each other and chase their long-held dreams?

Why You Should Read It

Some Indonesian novels in English can get quite heavy (as you’ve seen in this list so far), so here’s a romance novel to lighten up the mood!

Keenan, an aspirational painter, has been called back to his home to enroll in university so that he may one day take over the family business. 

Here is where he meets Kugy, an outgoing and confident writer who he befriends almost instantly.

In the years to come, Keenan and Kugy’s relationship will keep you on your toes as timing and circumstance will prevent them from becoming a couple, despite how perfect they are for each other!

This is a sweet tale of two young lovers trying to navigate through their artistic passions whilst grappling with the responsibilities of the “real” world.

12. Apple and Knife by Intan Paramaditha

Summary: Inspired by horror fiction, myths and fairy tales, Apple and Knife is an unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.

These short fictions set in the Indonesian everyday—in corporate boardrooms, in shanty towns, on dangdut stages—reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface. Sometimes wacky and always engrossing, this is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.

Mara finds herself brainstorming an ad campaign for Free Maxi Pads, with a little help from the menstruation-eating hag of her childhood. Jamal falls in love with the rich and powerful Bambang, but it is the era of the smiling general and, if he’s not careful, he may find himself recruited to Bambang’s brutal cause. Solihin would give anything to make dangdut singer Salimah his wife – anything at all.

In the globally connected and fast-developing Indonesia of Apple and Knife, taboos, inversions, sex and death all come together in a heady, intoxicating mix full of pointed critiques and bloody mutilations. Women carve a place for themselves in this world, finding ways to subvert norms or enacting brutalities on themselves and each other.

Goodreads Rating: 3.64

Why You Should Read It

If you’re a fan of horror fiction, ‘Apple & Knife’ is a must-read among this list of best books set in Indonesia! 

Incorporating fairy tale-esque writing styles and mythical storytelling, ‘Apple & Knife’ often plays on the supernatural to provide commentary on how women are mistreated in Indonesia.

This book is unflinching and fierce; the underlying rage palpable and unapologetic. ‘Apple & Knife’ is an Indonesian novel that provides a unique literary experience that you won’t want to miss out on!

13. The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha

Summary: You’ve grown roots, you’re gathering moss. You’re desperate to escape your boring life teaching English in Jakarta, to go out and see the world. So you make a Faustian pact with a devil, who gives you a gift, and a warning. A pair of red shoes to take you wherever you want to go.

But where will you choose to go?

To New York, to follow your dreams?

To Berlin or Amsterdam? Lima or Tijuana? Or onto a train that will never stop

You’re forever wandering, everywhere and nowhere, but are you ever home?

The choices you make may mean you end up as a tourist or an undocumented migrant, a mother or a murderer, and you will meet many travellers with their own stories to tell. As your paths cross and intertwine, you’ll come to realise that no story is ever new.

The Wandering is a novel about the highs and lows of global nomadism, the politics and privileges of travel and desire, and the freedoms and limitations of the choices we make, by one of Asia’s most exciting writers. It’s a playful and ingenious reminder that borders are real, that turns the traditional adventure story on its head.

Why You Should Read It

This is a fun yet deeply insightful choose-your-own-adventure book that will bring you on a journey in search of belonging and true freedom.

From the protagonist’s home town of Jakarta, you’ll be taken on several possible paths – to Berlin, New York, and even outer space – as you face the consequences of your decisions.

Depending on where the forks and paths of the various storylines take you, you might become a prostitute, a runaway migrant, a victim, or even a murderer.

This book is a whirlwind of possibilities that teaches you lessons about privilege, immigration, and identity along the way. Yet another great travel companion for when you’re about to catch that flight to the next adventure of your life!

14. The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata

Summary: Originally written in Bahasa, The Rainbow Troops was first published in 2005 and sold a record-breaking five million copies in Indonesia. The novel tells the inspiring and closely autobiographical tale of the trials and tribulations that the ten motley students (nicknamed the Rainbow Troops) and two teachers from Muhammadiyah Elementary School on Belitong Island, Indonesia, undergo to ensure the continuation of the children’ s education. The poverty-stricken school suffers the constant threat of closure by government officials, greedy corporations, natural disasters and the students’ own lack of self-confidence. The story is written from the perspective of Ikal, who is six years old when the novel opens. Just as the author himself did as a young man, Ikal goes to college and eventually wins a scholarship to go abroad, beating incredible odds to become a writer.

The Rainbow Troops is the first of a tetralogy of novels that have all become bestsellers in Indonesia. It was adapted for the screen and shown at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2009.

Why You Should Read It

With a staggeringly high 4.22 rating on Goodreads, ‘The Rainbow Troops’ definitely deserves a spot on the list of best books set in Indonesia.

This is a heavy yet extremely insightful read which touches on the inequality, poverty, and deprivation of underprivileged children in Indonesia. 

Despite this, the book elicits hope for a better future, and really allows readers to reflect on having the right to read and having access to a proper education.

A profound and powerful novel, this is a book you’ll definitely want on your TBR list for when you’re in the mood for a reflective, sobering, and eye-opening read.

15. The Land of Five Towers by Ahmad Fuadi

Summary: Alif had never set foot outside of West Sumatra. He passed his childhood days searching for fallen durian fruit in the jungle, playing soccer on rice paddies, and swimming in the blue waters of Lake Maninjau. His mother wants him to attend an Islamic boarding school, a pesantren, while he dreams of public high school. Halfheartedly, he follows his mother’s wishes. He finds himself on a grueling three-day bus ride from Sumatra to Madani Pesantren (MP) in a remote village on Java.

On his first day at MP, Alif is captivated by the powerful phrase man jadda wajada. He who gives his all will surely succeed. United by punishment, he quickly becomes friends with five boys from across the archipelago, and together they become known as the Fellowship of the Manara. Beneath the mosque’s minaret, the boys gaze at the clouds on the horizon, seeing in them their individual dreams of far-away lands, like America and Europe. Where would these dreams take them? They didn’t know. What they did know was: never underestimate dreams, no matter how high they may be. God truly is The Listener.

The Land of Five Towers is the first book in a trilogy written by A. Fuadi—a former TEMPO & VOA reporter, photography buff, and a social entrepreneur. He went to George Washington University and Royal Holloway, University of London for his masters. A portion of the royalties from the trilogy are intended to build Komunitas Menara, a volunteer-based social organization which aims to provide free schools, libraries, clinics and soup kitchens for the less fortunate.

Why You Should Read It

This is an Indonesian novel about morality, chasing dreams, religion, and the coming-of-age experience in an Islamic boarding school. 

It is an aspirational book that instills hope for the nation’s successors, to aim high, and to put in their best effort to manifest their dreams.

In addition to this, ‘The Land of Five Towers’ is a heartwarming story about a group of friends, united by a common dream of traveling abroad, to America and Europe, to pursue opportunities they would otherwise not have access to in their homeland.

16. The Year Of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch

best books set in indonesia

Summary: The year is 1965. The fiercely nationalistic government of the god-king Sukarno has brought Indonesia to the brink of chaos. Engulfed in the violence are Guy Hamilton, a Western journalist; Billy Kwan, his Chinese-Australian cameraman; and the young British woman they both love. Kwan’s disillusionment with his hero Sukarno leads him to desperate action, and a complex drama of loyalty and betrayal is played out in the eye of the political storm.

Why You Should Read It

Told through a Westerner’s point of view, and set in the political turmoil of the 1960s, ‘The Year Of Living Dangerously’ centers around Guy Hamilton, a foreign correspondent based in Indonesia to cover the violent decline of Sukarno’s power.

This will appeal to readers who enjoy documentary fictions packed with historical richness. 

You will learn a great deal from this illuminating read about a particularly turbulent time in the country’s past. 

16 Best Books Set In Indonesia You Must Read

There is no doubt of the vastness and variety that constitutes the landscape of Indonesian literature.

No matter your reading tastes or preferred genre, I am sure your next great South East Asian read can be found amongst this list of best books set in Indonesia!

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