Books: Doomed to be breathtaking

KALIMANTAAN by C S Godshalk Little, Brown pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
THIS IS a novel; it says so on the front cover. There's usually a lot of innocent pleasure to be found in books which do this: generally it's in watching the author get cold feet about the claim in the first few pages. There might be an Author's Note pointing out that his/her novel is, actually, based on historical events. Or there could be a confusing little family tree; or a series of pseudo-academic footnotes; or, in extreme cases, a photograph of the author looking too serious for something as frivolous as fiction. Kalimantaan contains all of the above, plus a glossary, but somehow you don't blame C S Godshalk for doing it.

She spent 10 years writing Kalimantaan, her first novel. It would, understandably, have been frustrating to see it accidentally stuck in the travel section, or alternatively, classed as a blockbuster along Shirley Conran lines. And Kalimantaan does have one of the more enticing Author's Notes in existence. "A hundred and sixty years ago" Godshalk begins, "a young Englishman founded a private raj on the north coast of Borneo."

Adventure and the exotic seep out of this small paragraph and through the subsequent pages of Kalimantaan like luscious juices. Victorian society - alternately vicious, hapless, vanquished and lovelorn - struggles to blossom alongside outcrops of Malays and Dayaks, headhunters and opium smugglers in the Borneo jungle. You forgive Godshalk for her opening chapter, which, incidentally, only makes sense after the end of the book. You forgive her for the footnotes, and her occasional tendency to veer towards the poetic extreme. By the time the raj's dependants collapse luridly into dust, you're prepared to forgive her almost anything. Because Kalimantaan is, very obviously, doomed to be thought of as "breathtaking", or "incomparable" or "exceptional". Massive in scope; shifting like a seascape, it's almost too slippery to pin down. However, Godshalk's short stories have been compared to Flaubert in the past, and she knows it; Kalimantaan contains some sly references to Madame Bovary. She shares, if not Flaubert's style, his fascination with the minutiae of character; although since her characters are all living on the wild side of Borneo instead of in parochial French villages, the minutiae can be a little overwhelming. Happily, when a character threatens to take over completely, and particularly if they have fallen in love, Godshalk generally kills them off. As in Flaubert, emotions, not sentiment, reign, to the extent that here they become almost palpable.

If writers were paid for the amount of imagination they put into a work, Godshalk would be on a large yacht in Monaco, with a spare one handy. And she would deserve it. She simultaneously manages to retain a firm grip on reality, so that finishing Kalimantaan is like emerging, rather dazed, from a long, warm bath, in the course of which have been some shockingly cold showers. Of course, Kalimantaan is just another novel, but Godshalk is, transparently, not just another novelist.