By Golda Mowe
Publisher: Monsoon Books
When Monsoon Books published Golda Mowe’s debut novel, Iban Dream, two years ago, I welcomed it as a long-overdue work of local fantasy fiction based on the myths and legends of our land.
Although Malaysians enjoy a rich heritage of folk and fairytales thanks to the cultural traditions and superstitions of our various ethnic groups and indigenuous peoples, Mowe is one of the very few who have used the old stories to inspire new tales.
As their titles indicate, both Iban Dream and Iban Journey draw on Iban mythology. Mowe herself is part-Iban. She recalls lamplit storytelling sessions with family members, and her love for and familiarity with Iban culture is evident in her easy, unpretentious and confident style.
The most often cited criticism levelled at both books is that they are not what readers expect of fantasy fiction. However, these readers’ expectations seem to have been created by reading fantasy novels out of the United States or Britain, or written by authors whose novels follow the three- or five-act “rule”.
My advice to anyone coming to Mowe’s books for the first time is approach them with an open mind.
Creative writing has many do’s and don’ts including the aforementioned three-act structure, show-don’t-tell, and so on, but these are rules in the European tradition of fiction writing, and I feel that readers shouldn’t be handicapped by the idea that stories not written in this prescribed way are necessarily badly or wrongly written.
Iban Journey is that it seems not to have been copy-edited or even proofread. The many grammatical errors and typos are jarring, but what’s worse is that I had to pause often and re-read several episodes because the relentless use of pronouns causes confusion about the identity of the characters involved in these scenes.
I also feel that although Mowe’s style is usually quite simple and straightforward, some of her sentences are rather too long and convoluted.
Finally, I felt that the author missed the opportunity to provide a truly satisfying resolution for the character of Bujang. Bujang, the hero of Iban Dream, is the father of Nuing, the hero of Iban Journey. I feel Bujang is a much more sympathetic and appealing character than his son and, having built a relationship with him in Dream, I was happy to see him in the sequel.
Unfortunately, Mowe seems to forget about Bujang in the course of this novel. While the journey here is Nuing’s, I do feel that his relationship with his father could have been explored to greater effect. After all, it is an important part of Nuing’s existence and he probably would not have had much of a story if not for Bujang’s actions in the first book.
Still, despite these flaws, I really enjoyed the novel. I found it quite a page-turner as I was keen to know Nuing’s fate.
I have to say that he is not particularly likeable or attractive, but his problems appear insurmountable, thus I wondered how he would overcome them. The final sentence of Dream states quite baldly that he does triumph in the end, and readers may consider this a kind of spoiler, but of course it’s Nuing’s journey and his many adventures on that journey that keep you hooked – they certainly made me want to keep reading.
A reviewer on Goodreads.com complains about Mowe’s detailed descriptions of characters making tools and other objects, and preparing food, saying that they are like anthropological reports, but I love these passages and I disagree that they don’t add to the story and world-building. To me, they situate the story on a different plane of existence from mine, and somehow, knowing that these people and their practices and beliefs existed and (to an extent) still exist, increases both their other-worldliness and likelihood.
Thus, scenes in which Nuing encounters demons and gods are quite plausible to me – not just in the realm of fantasy to which the novel belongs, but also in terms of the spiritual beliefs of the Ibans. After all, what is myth to one person is the gospel truth of another.
I hope Mowe will write more about Iban myths, legends and superstitions. These stories will be forgotten one day unless they continue to be told, and they have a better chance of surviving if they are recorded and published.
Mowe is in a unique position to preserve and share her own culture’s beliefs and tales, and the importance and necessity of both Iban Dream and Iban Journey must not be downplayed.