Malaysia is one of my favourite countries, and Sarawak in my top five places to visit if you are lucky enough to find yourself in that part of the world (Perhentian Islands would be at the top if you’re interested, despite having to buy bottles of Smirnoff on the back streets of Kota Bharu like it’s a kilo of opium, but I digress) I was therefore immediately drawn to this book given it’s setting, and a first person memoir dealing with real historical figures is always going to pique my interest!
Williams delivers a wonderfully rich narrative. James Brooke, discharged from the East India Company and looking for adventure, finds himself employed by the Sultan of Borneo to suppress revolution. He ends up ruling Sarawak and gains the eponymous title The White Rajah. Brooke’s real historical story is told through the eyes of his lover and companion John Williamson as an old man, and a rip roaring tale piracy, fighting, and colonialism it definitely is, but there is more depth to it than just mere fast paced adventure.
The two men are very different: Brooke full of charisma and action whilst Williamson is very much a loner, but a perfect narrator for the story. I thought the way the author dealt with Victorian attitudes to homosexuality very well done. I’m not sure if it was deliberate (particularly as the memoir is dated 1868) but the different attitudes of the two men towards their relationship really reflected to me the change in attitudes pre and post the Wilde trial – with Williamson the old narrator looking back with an ‘understanding’ he didn’t have then whilst Brooke seems far more the Hanoverian or early Victorian (and therefore paradoxically more modern) in morality. It also gave the book a very relatable modern theme. LGBT history is often overlooked, and gay characters in historical fiction tend to be rare and are often stereotyped when they do appear. Williams avoids those pitfalls as an author and mixes it in with the action and adventure sensitively. As a straight author it is always something that worries me when I write about gay characters set in the past, particularly with changing historical attitudes and morality. The White Rajah is a great adventure book with well-rounded believable characters, but that theme really elevated it for me.
I managed almost a month visiting places mentioned in the book and still managed to miss Brooke as an historical character when I was there (yeah sometimes I am not the most observant), but Tom Williams brings both the historical figure and the stunning landscape and nature of Sarawak to life. I could almost smell the air as I read, totally engrossed. There was a passage where our protagonists are stuck in the jungle slowly running out of rations and water, sick and hunted by enemies, that was so well drawn I was almost starving with them. There’s another book in the series ‘Cawnapore’, again dealing with a place I have visited, so that has gone straight onto my reading list. Highly recommended historical fiction!
The White Rajah is available on AMAZON and all other online and high street retailers.
Next up on my reading list is LJ Trafford’s Vitellius Feast.