In The White Rajah, Tom Williams has written a wonderful fictional account of real-life adventurer James Brooke which is filled with colourful narrative, vivid descriptions and very good characterisation.
Brooke, formerly of the the East India Company finds himself employed by the Sultan of Borneo to help suppress a rebellion and ends up as ruler of Sarawak and is known to history as The White Rajah. To tell you more would be to give away too much about the author’s unique take on Brooke’s eccentric personality but this is one of those stories that if it were not known to be true, would seem too unlikely a plot for a novel.
Brooke’s story is told through the eyes of his lover, John Williamson, looking back on his life. I have no idea whether Brooke was actually gay, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is how well the relationship between the flamboyant Brooke and the rather more reserved Williamson is portrayed. The author gives a good insight into Victorian attitudes to homosexuality and Willamson is a good narrator.
I’ve not visited that part of the world, but the descriptions in The White Rajah felt very alive without making the book feel like a travelogue. I reached the end of the novel with a strong sense of wanting to know more about the place, the historical background and the characters, which is always a good sign when finishing a historical novel.
James Brooke is both a real and somewhat controversial historical figure and I admire Tom Williams’ interpretation of him. The Brooke of this novel is not especially loveable but is very understandable in the context of his time.