The Fisherman King
By Kathrina Mohd Daud
Epigram Books/ Paperback/ 208 pages/ $26.64/Available here
3 out of 5
It begins with a story of old - a brother and sister, the children of a king, who are prone to dark deeds.
He keeps serpents coiled around him; she walks naked in public and punishes any man who lays eyes on her body. They disappear into the jungle together for hours. Their sins grow so great that their father has them walled up and left to die.
These are the kinds of stories that slither in and out of Bruneian academic Kathrina Mohd Daud's sinuous novel, a finalist for last year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize.
An orphan fisherman called Lisan returns to his hometown, the Water Village, after having vanished for eight years.
His adopted sister is cautiously pleased to see him; his ex-wife Bathia, less so. Lisan abandoned her - and their unborn child - to go on a quixotic mission to establish what he fervently believes to be his royal lineage.
Soon, however, he has pulled her back into his quest, which involves sunken treasure, a stolen throne and the summoning of a giant, mythical river serpent called the Nabau.
Coincidentally, it is not the only novel on the prize shortlist to deal with myths and lost empires - or even diving.
In Joshua Kam's How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World, the old saints of Malaysia rally against capitalism, while Singaporean Erni Salleh's The Java Enigma also involves a salvage dive for lost treasure. It is pleasing to see these resonances, however fortuitous, among the fiction of different countries.
The Fisherman King is at its strongest when it deals with Brunei's myths and folklore. It revels in the richness of its material, in tales of possessed snakes or sultans shooting jewels out of cannons to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.
Kathrina has a supple command of language, though the convolutions of her plot are sometimes hard to grasp, as are the motivations of her characters.
Although the reader spends a lot of time in Lisan's head, it is hard to parse his obsession with his bloodline or what it is about him that keeps fierce, wilful Bathia under his sway as they hurtle towards an ugly choice.
Though it could do with a better guide, there remains magic to be found in this novel's murky coils.
If you like this, read: The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid (Epigram Books, 2017, $26.64, available here). On an island where humans coexist uneasily with other races, a young Medusa goes into hiding in an underground community after she turns her whole village into stone.