What a superb book The Dulang Washer, that featured the gruelling industry of Malaya’s ancient tin-mining era, turned out to be. Here then lies an expansive work of essential historical fiction, thoughtfully and painstakingly composed by Irish writer, Paul Callan in his promising debut career as a novelist.
The Dulang Washer – meaning an old-term description of a washerwoman who pans for tin sediments at the water’s edge – is published by MPH Publishing in Kuala Lumpur and bears within its riveting plot, a host of gripping taut dramas that occur in smooth layered succession one after the other.
Naturally, the absorbing novel had me properly mesmerised.
The electrifying storyline of mostly Hakka-Chinese tin-mine emigrants who battle some extremely painful trials from opium addictions and severe malaria illnesses to the sly agendas purported by greedy Chinese tawkeh‘s, pimps and corrupted English officers in their masquerade of attempted dignity; are vividly portrayed and lend colour and flamboyance to the otherwise bleak atmosphere. Even the Tamilian bullock-cart drivers seem to be on the take and an overly-harsh English overseer in the character of Donald Redfern, bungles up through his clumsy show of cultural insensitivities, in fascinating ways.
Perfect then as The Dulang Washer hinges its adventurous episodes in an almost foreboding, gothic landscape in Malaya’s Kinta Valley in Perak state as early as 1890.
As a reader and realist – and this accounting only for personal taste – I’m sorry to say that I did not much care for the haloed beauty of the idealised heroine to be sought in the novel’s protagonist, Aisha and this accompanied by the super-powerful comic hero type pursued by Hun Yee, both of whom seemed victimised only by their goodness and utterly devoid of flaws. Still, I recognise that a healthy market for these kinds of stories exist and I can respect that fact without hesitation. I’ll also add that Callan tells a love story well measured by a keen display of tender affection, with which to rope in both humour and light.
Another aspect I did not much care for were what I felt to be the safe cultural themes drawn from a political correctness especially as the book drew to a neat finish. Some challenging sub-plots seemed overly-harmonious in their conclusions.
However, what I found especially brilliant and memorable were Callan’s deft skill in sketching characterisation from the varied individuals present in the novel and also, his strategic talent at a punctilious research where customs, rituals and a history to demonstrate the showcase of different races, were all strung together with sophisticated flair and fringed by intrigue.
There are different forms of storytelling…some complex and literary and shaped especially for its eloquence where the beauty of language is held to an admiration and perhaps others more general that excel at a stirring narrative. The latter would work instantaneously to bring a fictitious world to life.
Paul Callan is marvellous at old-fashioned storytelling…so good in fact, that I could literally view this strange faraway world..that formed an integral part of the Peninsular once upon a time, over a century ago. This, right before my eyes and one which readily brought enthrallment to all of my nine-year old geography lessons obtained from a classroom so very long ago. My remembered textbooks were now laced with new meaning.
The Dulang Washer is perfect for all Malaysians and readers and historians worldwide who thrive on the splendour of cultural diversity.