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9780805055344

Kalimantaan: A Novel

Godshalk, C. S. Author

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One hundred and sixty years ago a young Englishman founded a private raj on the coast of Borneo. The world he created eventually took in a territory the size of England, its expansion campaigns paid for in human heads. Here, polite Victorian conventions coexisted tenuously with one of the most violent cultures on earth, often with startling results: pockets of tenderness and extreme brutality appearing where least expected.

Into this world flowed a small tribe of adventurers, fugitives, criminals, and saints-- the madly talented and simply mad. And the women followed: wives and would-be wives, spinster nursemaids and heartless schemers, the rigidly virtuous and the virtually desperate. And always, the children, innocents too often the victims of an elemental nature both lush and deadly.

Kalimantaan is the story of this world, these people. But the deeper story resides in the realm of the heart. It is about love in absurd conditions, the tenacity of it as well as our ability to miss it repeatedly and with perverse genius.

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Review:

C. S. Godshalk's first novel is an adventure story in which the excitement is as much mental as physical. In 1838, Gideon Barr sets sails for Borneo, the land he intends to rule. We first see this empire builder through relatives' letters, and he emerges as singularly unbalanced yet singularly driven. He is also, it appears, almost infallible, applying more subtle techniques than the usual smash-and-grab. Gideon is no less forceful in his personal life: he is the sort who will return to England to wed his cousin but bring back her daughter instead--not out of love or attraction, but out of Darwinian common sense.

This flawed hero is only the first in an endless procession of brilliantly drawn men who blend civility with violence, innocence with calm brutality. Some go to Borneo to obliterate their English past; others never had one, having been out to sea at 8 or 9. And the natives are as contradictory as their imperial masters: "Honest, gentle, respectful of even their smallest children, cherishing their lore and tales, and at the same time methodically preparing for their gory celebrations, refining torture, training infants to perform these abominations."

Later come the missionaries and, finally, the Englishwomen, on whom the tropics take a heavy toll. Plotting her return to England with her only surviving child, Gideon's wife writes to her mother: "We have slipped into an unnatural attitude here. We regard the children we lose as necessary casualties, as replaceable." This is a world in which social rounds are riddled with danger, literally.

Kalimantaan is a huge achievement, ambitious in scope, style, thought, historical imagination, and humor. Here Godshalk describes a group of Dutch colonists: "What breed are they? From what planet?... They are the most inappropriate form of life ever to take up residence in the tropics. Everything about them is wrong, their clothes, their religion, their food. A Dutch meal on the equator--sausage, pickles, schnapps--should kill you outright, yet they pile it in for breakfast. Their women deliver babes through withering heat and monsoon rot like rolls from an oven, and these slough off dengue fever as if it were summer complaint. They will break. But it is usually under some vague malaise of the soul..." Kalimantaan demands your total attention and immersion. Yet Godshalk's tale must be read for its romance, extraordinary populace, and anatomy of colonialism, and if you give in to its lush language, it will offer you an inimitable dose of death and desire, magic and malaria dreams.

From the Inside Flap:

A hundred and fifty years ago, a young Englishman founded a private raj on the coast of Borneo -- a jungle-covered land of headhunting Dyaks, mercurial Malays, and subversive overseas Chinese. The world he created, boasting stone quays, great swaths of lawn, three Christian churches, and musical levees, eventually encompassed a territory the size of England. Within this historical framework, C.S. Godshalk constructs an epic novel of vast imagination, beauty and drama. It is the story of Gideon Barr, the White Rajah, and his Ranee, two people whose perverse genius it was to miss every opportunity offered them to connect through love. In a world filled with pirates and adventurers, with headhunters, rogues, and religious madmen, Godshalk paints a vivid portrait of bravery and cowardice, and of a desire for order amid the curse of wildness.

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