From the BLURB:
What happens when six pampered Westerners on a spiritual retreat in Bali end up fighting for their lives?
Six strangers from across the world meet on the tropical island of Bali to attend a course designed to help them face their fears. Their backgrounds are as diverse as their fears - which range from flying, public speaking and heights, through to intimacy, failure and death.
Friendships and even romance blossom as the participants are put through a series of challenges which are unusual, confronting and sometimes hilarious. A week of fun in the sun suddenly turns into something far more serious, however, when the unthinkable happens - a tragic disaster that puts the group in deadly danger, testing the individual courage of every member.
‘Fearless’ is a new fiction novel from Australian author, Fiona Higgins.
I was really excited to read this novel, as I’d thoroughly enjoyed Higgins’ ‘Wife on the Run’ back in 2014, and everything about ‘Fearless’ was broadcasting being a “great summer read” to me. But what really pushed me into reading this one was my catching the 2012 movie ‘The Impossible’ on TV one night. It’s a great movie based on a true story, about a British family on holiday in Thailand, who are separated by the destruction and chaotic aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The blurb of ‘Fearless’ alludes to ‘an unspeakable act’ happening in Bali, that throws six strangers’ lives into mayhem – and of course that’s alluding to an event similar to the 2002 Bali Bombings – but ‘The Impossible’ reminded me of the power in such stories where an unfathomable disaster happens in the middle of “paradise” … so I delved into ‘Fearless’, and hated it. Absolutely hated it.
The premise of ‘Fearless’ is these six strangers from all corners of the globe come to Bali to attend a Fearless retreat where they intend to combat everything from a snake phobia, to fear of heights and flying, to general dissatisfaction with life. We get a chapter that follows each of the six strangers, to understand the deeper meanings behind their wish to combat fear. And straight away from meeting these characters, the story started to fall down for me because there’s so much cliché … there’s Annie, an older mid-Westerner who is (of course) an outspoken devout Christian and overweight American. Remy is a Frenchman who falls for Australian Janelle while she’s wearing a rash-vest and zinc on her nose (because of course he does – Frenchmen are so very romantic). Henry is a paunchy, British bird-watcher and quintessential geek (because he’s British?). Cara is a broken mother … and even her, who has one of the more compelling and believable backstories, I wish there’d be a decision to make a subversive gender-flip and have her be a father grieving the loss of his child, just so that not every character was so darn predictable. And then there’s Lorenzo – an Italian photographer who has experienced some Bill Henson-esque backlash in his home country, amid accusations that his artistic photographs of ingénue girls are inappropriate … his introspective story takes a bizarrely sharp turn towards the end, and I couldn’t help but feel he got lugged with this exploration on the cliché that Italian men are sleazy and pervy or something?
It wasn’t just that these characters all felt built on the most typical of tourism clichés, it’s also that they’re all kind of unbearable. At one point, the Australian Janelle puts on a saccharine “presentation” to be filmed for her bulimic teenage niece, wherein she quotes bumper-sticker philosophy while stripping down to her underwear and Taylor Swift’s ‘Fifteen’ plays from her iPod in the background. I just … my eyes were so busy rolling, I could barely focus on the page during that scene (which is also when Frenchman Remy really falls in love with her, because … of course.)
‘Of course,’ said Remy, impressed by how much Janelle seemed to care. About the orangutans of Borneo, the world’s rainforests, the gamelan orchestras of Bali, teenagers with eating disorders and, naturally, her own family. He considered what he cared about. The last time he’d cried was after the defeat of Paris Saint-Germain to archrivals Montpellier in round 32 of the Ligue 1 football season. Janelle’s compassion is more than refreshing, he thought. It’s intoxicating.
But the book was also off-putting to me for the presentation of Bali, as seen through the eyes of these Westerners … it reminded me of a Kirkus book review I read once, of Heidi R. Kling’s YA book ‘Sea’ in which the reviewer accused the story of being; “Disaster tourism masquerading as romance…” and the last line of the review was also apt for Higgins’ ‘Fearless’; “Well-meaning, but ultimately about slumming in disaster zones for a summer’s recuperative fun.” Because Higgins does present Bali as a “disaster zone”, essentially. Everything from Annie’s observations of their abuse of street dogs, to Remy watching a woman defecate in the street and all six hearing locals bad-mouth the Javanese … none of this sat well with me.
So, nothing in this book was really working for me – why did I keep reading? Well, I wanted to get to the “unspeakable act” tagline on the cover … I thought everything at the Fearless retreat and getting to know these strangers was boring or infuriating, but maybe they’d rise to the occasion in the midst of a disaster? But this plot-turn doesn’t happen until around page 220 (of a 391-page book) and it did feel utterly disjointed from the rest of the story … it felt cheap, actually – as did the whole book for me, unfortunately and ultimately.