There’s a great deal to admire in Drusilla Modjeska’s ambitious, sweeping, multilayered novel that takes us into the heart of colonial change as the fractured island of Papua New Guinea moves towards independence from Australia in the 1970s.
Centred round academia and the new university in Port Moresby, the island’s capital, The Mountain introduces an Australian ex-pat community along with their Papuan contemporaries. It’s a country on the cusp of change but still dictated to by tradition, both colonial and tribal. Into this world arrive Rika and her anthropology documentary film-maker husband, Lawrence.
Several years his wife’s senior, Lawrence resists the idea that anthropology is about simply observing as if under a microscope: change and external influence has validity. He travels to the (fictional) remote mountain and local villages to film, leaving Rika in town to acclimatise to a world very different to her Dutch background.
While Lawrence records and experiences clan relations and rituals, art and ancestor stories and the influences of western teachings and medicines, so Rika herself confronts her own changes and conflicts, falling for Aaron, the young and charismatic local academic and future leader. Friends and colleagues are not overly fazed by this development, but the rarefied air of academia is not representative of colonial society. Some Papuans are disapproving: members of the white community turn to violence.
With one foot in Moresby and one on the mountain, Modjeska’s novel is very much about place and time. Rika’s coming-of-age runs simultaneously with PNG’s introduction to democracy and the position of tribal practices of tradition and superstition in this new world: her exposure to life on the mountain when she eventually joins Lawrence further changes Rika.
The second (and considerably shorter) part of The Mountain is set 30 years later: Rika is a successful artist living in New York while Aaron is long dead. It is Jericho, Rika and Aaron’s adopted son, who returns. A successful art dealer in London, Jericho is mixed race and feels he belongs nowhere. He needs to understand his sense of place – but also needs closure with details about Aaron’s death so soon after Independence.
It’s a dense, luminous work of fiction. Modjeska is a celebrated non-fiction writer and The Mountain is at its brilliant best when it navigates that sense of place and the realities of that world – the politics, its history, its traditions. The complexities of PNG are palpable, particularly in the first half of the book as we journey with Rika and, to her, the newness of the island and its culture.
Less successful, less engaging, are the individual stories and narratives. Jericho arrives too late to hold the sympathies and empathies: his personal journey of identity in part mirrors Riva’s arrival in PNG. But it is too obvious where his questions will be answered – he is, at the end of the day, a mountain man. And his long-held love for Bili, daughter of Riva’s close friend Laedi, is all too neatly wrapped in her activism for PNG’s right to self-determine.
The Mountain is, throughout, full of convenient love affairs, analogies for events – the disintegrating marriage between Laedi and Don; the rocky marriage of Pete and Martha (that at least survives until his death in Sydney many years later); Wana and Sam; the unexpected Lawrence and Janape. And, central, Rika and Aaron.
Through them and their friendships, we gain an insight into the local cultural mix: through them and their children, we experience, when Jericho returns to the island, how independence has impacted and how tradition has withstood the test of time.
It’s a long journey for all concerned – Lawrence and Jericho return from the UK, Martha from Sydney. A bitter Riva will never travel from New York to the island. It’s 30 years since Papua New Guinea gained independence: it’s 30 years since Aaron died. It’s also a long, overly detailed journey for the reader – particularly in the middle where the newness of discovery has worn off.
Drusilla Modjeska’s first book of fiction was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin award but lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.