Everyone gets wanderlust every once in a while. I know I have. I believed that if I just went somewhere else, tried a new job, went on a life-changing vacation, then things would be better. I’d feel normal. I’d feel fulfilled.
This is a lot like how Lisa Kusel feels at the start of her memoir, Rash. Lisa is a published author with two novels under her belt, but when her third novel fails to find a publisher, her agent suggests she work on something else. Lisa herself feels she needs a change of pace. Her husband Victor, a middle school teacher, is also feeling the urge to do something more, something meaningful. The perfect opportunity presents itself when Lisa learns about a new eco-friendly school opening in Bali. Victor can go teach in a brand-new top-of-the-line school, Lisa can write in an exotic new locale, and their six-year-old daughter Loy can get a top-notch education. Victor secures a position as the 7th/8th grade teacher, they make their arrangements, and off they go to Bali.
Of course, things aren’t as they appear. As soon as the Kusels arrive in Bali, things go sideways. The school is still under construction, there is no curriculum, and Lisa has to deal with problem after problem in their bamboo house and deal with never-ending writer’s block. Add to that the growing tension in Lisa and Victor’s marriage, and Lisa wonders whether she ruined everything by encouraging Victor to bring their family to Bali.
Something I’ve noticed in memoirs and biographies is that the subject often paints themselves as victims, with everything happening to them. This isn’t always the case, but it makes it appear like the subject is benevolent and just happens to have bad things happening to near-flawless people. Lisa doesn’t treat herself so kindly. She admits her faults. She gives everyone, herself included, doubts, fears, anxieties, flaws. By not holding back, she makes her memoir and everyone in it three-dimensional, complete, human.
I felt for Lisa, the situation she found herself in. It would be so easy for Lisa, in her memoir, to paint Victor as the one at fault–how could he continue living here? Why didn’t he just let them go back to California? But she is honest in this memoir. She complains, she fights, she hates so much about her situation. Victor comes off as a saint next to her, with his tenacity in trying to do everything he can to keep the school and his class afloat, but his unwillingness to talk in some ways makes it worse.
Lisa’s talent as a writer really shines in this memoir. From the magical palm-frond paradise of the Bali they first see to the bug- and humidity-ridden disaster they end up living in daily, you can feel Bali as though you’re there, swatting mosquitos, pulling your sticky shirt away from your sticky skin, and dodging angry monkeys. Lisa’s and Victor’s frustration, the feeling that they’re drifting apart, grabs onto you as a reader. These are imperfect people trying to make the best of a far from perfect situation, and you just want to see them get their happy ending.
Of course, I’m not going to tell you whether they get their happy ending or not. You’ll never know! Mwahahah! (Unless you look up Lisa’s biography online. Just don’t. Not because it’s good or bad, but because it’s more fulfilling to read what happens in the memoir. I didn’t look up Lisa’s author bio beforehand, and I’m happier for it)
I could go on and on–about how Lisa’s disgust with bugs reminds me why I haven’t travelled much, or how whenever it seemed like things at the school and community couldn’t get worse I was proven wrong, but I think I’ll end with this: the most fulfilling stories, to me, are about people. Whether it’s a memoir, a fantasy, or a play, if the author reels me in and makes me care about the people, then I’ll stay with them until the bitter end. Lisa does this phenomenally. I read this over the span of two days, telling myself I needed to stop because I had chores to do and errands to run. Well, those chores are still undone and the errands had to wait until the last page was turned and the last word read.
If you want to read a memoir–not about some celebrity or world-class traveller, but about a small family eager to make a difference in an unfamiliar land while trying to cling to happiness–read this one.