The mountain, the dominant image of Drusilla Modjeska’s ambitious new novel, is an imaginary peak in Australia’s nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. A young, recently wed Dutch photographer, Rika, and her English ethnologist husband Leonard arrive in PNG at the end of the 1960s, when the Melanesian country is still under Australian colonial rule. He is to study the remote tribal community of the mountain, and she is along for the ride. Finding herself quickly abandoned, however, Rika is drawn to an educated young Papua New Guinean, Aaron, and a lifelong love affair with him and his country begins. With elements of a family saga (the story ends in recent times), The Mountain is book about the enduring relationship between European and Melanesian in all its complexity: the ties that can bring people together and the mysteries that can confound them on both sides. Informed by the author’s many visits to PNG and by much historical research, the book’s strength is its lovingly detailed depictions of Papuan New Guinean life, culture and society. While PNG’s gaining of independence in 1975 is major event in the book, Modjeska’s focus is largely on the personal and emotional lives of her characters, rather than on the political (it is a novel, after all). As a conduit into a fascinating yet frequently misunderstood country on Australia’s doorstep, The Mountain has much to recommend it.
Andrew Wilkins is director of Wilkins Farago. He wrote this review in the Port Moresby hotel featured in this book. This review first appeared in the Feb/March 2012 issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.