Richard Woodman's fictional swansong, A River in Borneo, is a gripping page turner set in Malaysian and Indonesian waters during the 19th century. It is Woodman at his best, says Julia Jones
A River in Borneo
McBooks Press, £21.95
Richard Woodman insists that this is his last novel. If that must be true, well, what a way to go!
A River in Borneo is Woodman at his best. It’s set in the Malaysian and Indonesian waters he knew directly from his time as a junior officer in the 1960s Merchant Navy.
He understands about small scale trading though the islands whether under sail, as in this novel, or in the last days of the merchant navy pre-containerisation.
The central action takes place between 1867-1872 a time of transition between sail and steam.
The sailing scenes are pure delight, the lovely language of full-rigged ships supporting description of intricate and credible manoeuvres to dodge a threatening Spanish auxiliary corvette.
Thetys, the brigantine under Captain Harry Kirton’s command is already becoming an anachronism as a merchant ship, yet her lines are so graceful she is frequently described as a yacht and that’s how her captain sails her. As Woodman himself would have done.
That later mid-19th century period was also a time of transition and tension in maritime South East Asia involving British, Spanish and Dutch commercial interests as well as the complex indigenous people of different races and religions.
Woodman’s central character, Harry Kirton, must learn to navigate the sensitivities of different groups within his crew with the same skill that he negotiates the intricate passages of the islands between the Sulu and Celebes Seas.
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He’s not always successful – Woodman’s heroes are not instinctively ‘woke’ – but Harry Kirton’s character has been moulded by accident, disability and pain.
He has been partially rejected by his own nation and social class and this gives him scope to develop as a human being.
The novel opens with a scene from the 1960s when a small group of marines under Lieutenant Christopher Kirton are involved in the Malay ‘Confrontation’.
Here the language and attitudes are more crudely shocking.
I almost threw the book down after the first few lines which were dated within the early summer of 1964.
Expressions of racism from within one’s own lifetime are much less comfortable reading than those set in 19th century history.
The novel ends with brief valedictory scene set in an Essex hospice.
It may offer coded confirmation that this is indeed Richard Woodman’s fictional swansong.
In which case the only sensible course of action is to hurry to one’s bookshelves and make sure that all backlist titles are there in good order.
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