17 Dec / The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao [in Shelf Awareness]
Since comparisons to Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians seem unavoidable, here’s what might be familiar: yes, crazy, rich, Asian characters populate Tiffany Tsao’s The Majesties. Differences, however, immediately overshadow superficial similarities, most obviously from the very first sentence: “When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why – especially if you were one of the intended victims.” As the sole survivor of her sister’s deadly machinations, Gwendolyn – called “Doll” – lies in a coma. She claims the position of omniscient narrator, revealing how she became trapped in her hospital bed. The determination to understand why Estella did what she did keeps Doll alive.
Doll and Estella are Sulinados, who are among Indonesia’s über-wealthiest families. The patriarch – prone to outbursts – is turning 80, and the extended clan gathers to celebrate, only to die by poison-laced shark fin soup. Estella flawlessly executes this mass murder by including herself among her victims. Her final words are only for Doll: “Forgive me.” The trespasses in The Majesties are many, although Estella is hardly the lone perpetrator: three generations of Sulinados have used their unfettered power to create alliances, multiply holdings, exert and sustain control.
From childhood into early adulthood, the sisters – so close that they needed only each other – consumed the privilege of wealth: amassing possessions, luxury travel, overseas educations. Not until both are Berkeley college students do they experience first adversity, when Estella’s involvement with the man who becomes her husband almost sunders the sororal bond. While Estella’s marriage ensnares her in a platinum cage, Doll becomes an international entrepreneurial superstar, and the exclusive accessories company she founds provides the illusion of independence. Only Estella’s young widowhood returns the estranged duo to some semblance of recovered sisterhood.
When Estella is charged with creating the slideshow for the upcoming birthday fête, she makes an impossible discovery among the long-forgotten photographs. The sisters’ youngest aunt, who drowned two decades ago, appears in a snapshot dated three years after her official death. Estella must know the truth and insists on Doll’s confidence and companionship. The answers they discover – the breadth of disregard, the abuses of power, the lack of consequences – sets in motion the family’s doom.
Originally published in 2018 as Under Our Wings in Australia, where Tsao resides, The Majesties is an urgent literary thriller that also affectingly, seamlessly acts as a social treatise exposing the moral and legal abuses of the ultra-elite. Born in San Diego and raised in Singapore and Indonesia, Tsao displays obvious comfort with the Indonesian language and evokes a convincing sense of place. (She is also the translator for Indonesian fiction writers Dee Lestari and Laksmi Pamuntjak, among others.) Vivid geographic and cultural details notwithstanding, Tsao’s (The Oddfits) first non-fantasy novel proves to be an engrossing, eloquent story of fatal familial dysfunction.
Shelf Talker: The mass murder of one of Indonesia’s über-elite families is a mystery that can only be solved by the comatose sole survivor in Tiffany Tsao’s absorbingly maleficent The Majesties.