The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska
The Mountain opens in the heady years just prior to Papua New Guinea’s independence, a country grappling with the transition from Australian colony to independent nation. The new university is a magnet for a range of different people and has lured esteemed anthropologist and film-maker Leonard to an appointment, accompanied by his young wife Rika, an aspiring photographer. Leonard wants to research and film in a remote mountain community; Rika becomes immersed in the university, working in their darkroom and befriending staff, wives and partners, amongst them Aaron, a young academic and the first indigenous member of the university’s staff.
When Leonard completes his research and film, Rika stays to make a life with Aaron. Modjeska handles these complex relationships beautifully, setting up a fascinating world – a merging of races and cultures that has been imposed by the colonial paradigm. The tensions and expectations that build from the looming transition are at once an exhilarating and disturbing portent of things to come. Modjeska actually lived in PNG during those years, so her observations have a clarity and authenticity that make the novel sing with passion.
The second half of the novel is set only a few years ago. Laedi, one of Rika’s friends, is now a Minister in a dysfunctional government. She welcomes back Jericho, the son of Leonard and a mountain girl. Jericho has lived most of his life in the UK and is now a successful art curator but feels a great need to ‘belong’ to his indigenous culture of the mountain. His journey there and personal discovery of his unique culture and the art it produces leads to a profound personal transformation and vision of hope.
The Mountain is a rich, lush and compelling novel. I recommend it unreservedly.
Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings