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Kalimantaan Paperback – August 5, 1999

4.0 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

At the height of the Victorian Empire, a young officer of the East India Company carves out a small raj for himself on the forsaken island of Borneo in the Malaysian archipelago. Creatively using historical models in her vivid debut, Godshalk constructs her imaginary imperialist with painstaking local research and well-paced prose that unfolds in evocative vignettes. Gideon Barr braves dreaded pirates, insidious disease, monsoons and bloody reprisals from the native headhunters and the Chinese merchants who resent Britain's trade leadership. In a short time, with swift brutality, he manages to establish a thriving entrepot of English society based on the trade in rare spices and metals, opium, the "currency of heads" and "youth disposable as water." Godshalk's point of view shifts restlessly, from Barr, as he writes to his dead mother, to those who join him in his megalomaniacal pursuit, including his dangerous cousin and "dark counterweight," Richard Hogg, who will carry out his own ruthless expansion in the territory as the rajah's deputy. Yet Godshalk finds her steady narrative strength in the voice of Barr's 18-year-old English bride, Melie, through whom we are able to absorb the rich, sodden beauty of the archipelago, the startling diversity of its inhabitants and the humanity in the "phenomenon" of Barr himself. Godshalk's use of native names and words (too few are found in her glossary) helps bolster the illusion of an extraordinary, vanished world?though some less intrepid readers, frustrated by swimming pronouns without fixed antecedents and careless anachronisms in the speech of Godshalk's English people, might lose heart during this otherwise gorgeous, ultimately doomed journey. 50,000 first printing; author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus; No Edition Stated edition (August 5, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349110697
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349110691
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 7.7 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,830,653 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Upon release of her debut novel Kalimantaan in 1998, award-winning short story writer C.S. Godshalk was dubbed 'the memsahib's Conrad' by the Sunday Times.
The novel, indeed reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, is based on the life of James Brooke. During the golden age of British imperialism, this 19th century adventurer carved out a small piece of the East Indies for himself. First founding the settlement of Kuching on the island of Borneo he was later recognized as the 'White Rajah' of Sarawak.
In Kalimantaan (which incidentally means 'Island of raw sago' in the Dayak language) the story is mainly told from the perspective of Amelia, wife of Gideon Barr (the fiction version of James Brooke). After ten years in the wilderness Barr has returned to England to find a bride. The young woman of his choice, Amelia Mumm, accompanies her husband back to Borneo. What follows is the tale of a Victorian woman's experiences in an alien and often frightening environment.
Godshalk is a great stylist, with an astounding command of language. Blending fiction with historical and anthropological facts, she recreates the brooding atmosphere of the island's interior, where these Victorian pioneers were more or less engulfed by the Malay and Dayak culture: mysterious and impenetrable like the forest itself. There is for example a chilling description of a headhunting campaign.
However, although the book depicts a very vivid picture of the situation in Barr's little empire, the plot remains somewhat thin. In this respect it is not always clear how the vast array of characters introduced into the story are supposed to contribute to it. As a result of this multitude of personae the development of their characters leaves something wanting too.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating, beautifully written novel, a fictionalised account of the white rajahs of Borneo. It may seem like heavy going at first but, if you stick with it, you'll soon find yourself caught up in the story. The characters spring to vibrant life and you can almost sense the dense, stifling jungle all around them. And, above all, it is a magnificent tale of love.
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Format: Paperback
C.S. Godshalk has done for the distant tropics what Patrick O'Brian has done for the Napoleonic Wars. Working with rich historical material and an abundance of exotica, she was woven a dense, intoxicating, multi-layered world. In one book, she's created an adventure story, a love story, a story of heartbreak, betrayal, devotion, passion, and contempt -- and an incredible view of a far-away place, in a vanished time, with characters who are at once alien and entirely understandable. Godshalk moves deftly between Linnaean naturalism, penetrating portraiture, and heartbreaking family insights. Her prose, like her plot, moves from postcard-pretty to bafflingly complex -- abrupt shifts of perspective, time, and narrative kept me fascinated, amused, and always alert. Her tale of Victorian conquest, colonial life, and the eddies and currents of human progress (psychological, emotional, and social) covers half a century and follows the British empire from its apogee to its unseen -- but still apparent -- undoing. It also follows Gideon Barr and his astonishing bride through a complex, flawed, utterly human marriage, blesses them with children and snatches them away, offers them victory seeded with disaster, and proffers pride at the price of self-worth. Through it all -- in only one of many nuanced layers of meaning in this wonderful book -- it offers a redemptory view of love as the ultimate human emotion -- love that echoes across time, distance, distraction, and even death to recapture its object and redeem its subject. Godshalk has echoes (as noted) of O'Brian, but also of Conrad, Naipaul, and a host of others -- and exceeds them all in her intense interior portraits of the characters who people her immense landscape. Thank you, C.S. Godshalk, for the best novel I've read this year. I'll be a devoted fan for life!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I'm not sure why I found this book so fascinating, except that it allowed me to enter a world that I might never have known. I didn't like the main character, Barr, or many of the others, except the children, always the children, but that wasn't the point. The juxtaposition of good and evil is beautifully realized as we are slammed from one to the other, feeling the steaming tropical land, seething, forever changing. The author has somehow captured the essence of the duality of man and his prideful attemts to conquer the unconquerable. There were times I wasn't even sure who was speaking, but it didn't matter. Like Barr's European wife, I just followed her lead and drifted through this amazing world. It is a wonderful gift when a writer can offer such a feast to her readers.
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Format: Paperback
This rich, reflective novel tells the story of a hard-headed Englishman's establishment of a private raj in Borneo.
Plot summary: In spite of antihero Gideon Barr's misplaced attention to detail, the kingdom survives attacks by pirates, headhunters, cholera and the weather, and even Barr's tragic marriage, only to finally be undone by revolution and misplaced trust.
Details of plot and place are wonderful here, but what really stands out is the characterization and the tensions of the many private and public relationships in this kingdom. More tension: the tropical environment consistently resists "civilization" or even comprehension from its European residents.
Kalimantaan doesn't put characters with modern sensibilities in front of a quaint backdrop; it's a "historical" novel only in the sense that it interrogates history and historiography.
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