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Golda Mowe. 2013, Iban Dream.

Golda Mowe. 2013, Iban Dream. Singapore: Monsoon Books, (1) 2013. ISBN 9789814423120. Available in both paperback and Kindle editions.

What a treat it was to happen upon Golda Mowe's novel! In Iban, fiction has had a number of skilful practitioners from the early 60s onwards. The handful of novels in English with a Sarawak setting (all concerned with white people) are to my taste rather dreary, and I confess that I approached Ms. Mowe's book (because of the language) fearing disappointment. How wrong I was! Mowe, of pure Borneo ancestry, is a great talent, a mistress of the English language, who has accomplished what no one else has done. Dash and craft at once inform her novel. She has an impressive body of work, available on her website [http://www.gmowe.ws/], and I intend to devour it all.

Pigeonholed by western genres, Iban Dream is a "fantasy" novel. The story is set in a remote past peopled by gods, spirits, and wise animals as well as people. One might well admit that there actually was a time in Borneo when all of these lived together--human beings certainly behaved as if that were the case. Iban Dream is, in fact, an ensera, or epic, written in English.

The plot of Iban Dream is a hero-quest. A young boy, Menjat, suspected of bringing a curse on his longhouse, is hurled into exile. Menjat attempts to return home but finds his house has been attacked and all his relatives slaughtered and beheaded. With supernatural help he is adopted and raised by the chief of the orangutans. On his way to manhood he meets many adventures. You can probably conjecture how the story develops, so I won't spoil it.

Ms. Mowe heard stories told in the longhouse. She writes prose that is correct, lively, and chaste; when she writes "purple," for effect, the purple is appropriate and it works. I have said that Iban Dream is an ensera, and it reads like one, although I am puzzled as to how she pulled off this amazing feat. The heroic register of Iban language differs exceedingly from that in English, yet Mowe has succeeded in recreating the Iban feeling--and even hinting at Iban literary glories--by English means. She's a skilled and learned prose stylist.

Mowe copiously describes the old ways, and does not whitewash ancient Iban life. Her world is romantic in that it is beautiful, wonderful, sublime, sometimes tender, and awesome, and it is also hard, violent, and cruel. Homer's world is such a mix. The picture she paints of ancient Iban life compels belief that it is close to the truth.

Beyond all the "critical observations," since the great end of reading is pleasure, Iban Dream is a great read, engaging, exciting, and picturesque--even to present-day Dayaks. (One Dayak reader on Amazon wrote: "It completely took me a few centuries back!") Ms. Mowe is a bright star in the Sarawak literary sky, and, I hope, rising.

Otto Steinmayer, Lundu, Sarawak)

(1) http://www.monsoonbooks.com.sg/iban-dream-9789814423120/

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Author:Steinmayer, Otto
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Words:504
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