Hamra and the Jungle of Memories
by Hanna Alkaf
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 18, 2023
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There are times when the simplest stories can be the most profound, and when stories written for younger readers can resonate with anyone willing to embrace the magic within. Hamra and the Jungle of Memories is the fourth novel from Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf. I had read and loved her first two, have the third but haven't gotten to it yet. Her first was Young Adult, the second Middle Grade, and I think Hamra would be considered MG too. It is set on the island of Langkawi, as well as several surrounding islands in an archipelago west of the Malay peninsula. The story begins on Hamra's thirteenth birthday, which everyone else in her family seems to have forgotten, but they do have other things on their mind. They are living through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hamra's mother is away most of the time since she is a nurse at a hospital far enough away she is not able come home each night. Her father, normally a tour boat guide, has volunteered to deliver food and medicine wherever needed. Hamra has to stay at home since schools are closed, and she has to look after her grandparents, her grandmother Opah suffering from dementia.
It is billed as a Malaysian spin on Little Red Riding Hood, and it is that, but so much more, incorporating many Malaysian legends into a quest story. Hamra's nickname is Little Red, the color of her favorite hijab. On this particular day she is frustrated that no one has acknowledged her birthday, and Opah complains about the breakfast Hamra fixed, insisting on her favorite dish. Hamra must go into the nearby jungle to find the right ingredients. In her haste and frustration, she forgets one of the most important rules of the jungle: "Always ask permission before you enter." And later, after filling her pouch with the needed herbs, she forgets another: "Never take what isn’t yours." She finds a flourishing jambu tree (Java Fruit). She picks one of the fruit, but then has to contend with a talking tiger who claims the tree is his. She is barely able to escape, then when she slices the fruit and gives it to Opah, she knows it was the right thing to do. The fog in Opah's mind lifts, she recognizes Hamra, and wishes her happy birthday.
The next day she wants to pick more jambu, but the tiger says she must pay for what she has already taken. The tiger says to call him Pak Belang, a common name for a Malaysian tiger, since it means "Uncle Stripes." It so happens he is a weretiger, formally human, but he has been a tiger so long he forgot how to change back. Hamra's debt will be forgiven if she helps him figure out how to be human again. He also promises Hamra to help bring Opah back from dementia. Surprisingly, she believes him, and her grandfather believes her, and is willing to help with advice about where to go and what to take for the journey. Along with Hamra's best friend, Ilyas, they go to the magical Night Market, which moves around depending on what day it is. Hamra, Ilyas, and Pak Belang have to answer riddles posed by a large hornbill guarding a bridge. They all answer correctly and are allowed in. The Night Market is like a carnival populated by magical, mythical creatures. An old woman soothsayer, or more specifically the bayan (parrot) she takes out of its cage, tells them things they need to do to accomplish the task, but they must figure out where to go.
Even though there are specific Malaysian references, I thought several were similar enough to legends from other cultures. The bayan at the market said they must: ask the lady why she screams; ask the praying man why he prays; ask the bones why they weep; trust another, no matter how unlikely; trust yourself. Hamra had helped her father on his tour boat as long as she could remember, and it is now available since there are no tourists. They go to Pulau Dayang Bunting and the Lake of the Pregnant Handmaiden (the screaming woman); to Pulau Tuba to the Caves of Gua Wang Buluh (the praying man), then back to Langkawi to the Telega Tujuh waterfalls, all places Hamra was familiar with, along with their legends. The screaming woman (the pregnant handmaiden) reminded me of the sirens that threatened Odysseus and his men. They also went to the hut of someone Pak Belang knew, Nenek Kebayan, who was reminiscent of Baba Yaga. At every place Pak Belang had to give up something, his magical sight, his superior hearing, and his strength. One of their last stops is Pantai Tengkorak, Sandy Skulls Beach, where they learn why the bones weep, seeing a vision of who Pak Belang had been when he was human. The final thing they must do, learn his human name, which he had forgotten, comes from an unexpected source.
As with most fairy tales and fables, the protagonist is faced with obstacles and challenges, but eventually learns valuable lessons. It isn't always easy for Hamra, and might not be easy for some readers to witness, since she is frequently self-centered, and quick to anger. On several occasions she almost drives Ilyas away, and she almost gives up on the quest altogether when she learns compromising facts about Pak Belang. But she perseveres, and gets help from many others, including a fairy who had voluntarily left her family at the Telega Tujuh falls. They also have to contend with the Bunians, who all were the most handsome men Hamra had ever seen, but also the most threatening, since their king wants Pak Belang's teeth, thinking they will bring him great power. She learns to trust others, no matter how unlikely, and most of all trust herself, and her ability to reason through all the quandaries and come up with the correct answer. As she had told Pak Belang, "When I think about being human, I think about trying…trying to take care of each other…there's a lot of magic and wonder in the trying." There is a lot of magic and wonder in this book. Highly recommended.
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