This is a review of the book The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska.
Drusilla Modjeska is a highly respected Australian non-fiction author, and this is her first foray into fiction. I had read a few of her earlier works (Poppy, in particular, stands out, though I also enjoyed Stravinsky’s Lunch) so to be presented with this book was like a special treat.
The story is in two parts. The first, set in 1968 and the years following, tells the story of Dutch-born photographer Rika and her English anthropologist husband Leonard, as they come to Papua New Guinea to make a film about the indigenous population, in the process falling in with the locals, both indigenous and colonial, who are making lives for themselves in this Australian colony seeking independence. The second part, set in 2005, looks at the experiences of the next generation as they try to make sense of what their country has become.
I’m hesitant to say too much because most of what I say could be considered spoilers, but at the risk of ruining things for others I will make some comments. Modjeska is very good at hinting at things without saying them outright, therefore making exposition seem more natural, but there were times that I wished she would just come out and say what she meant. The second part of the book, for example, seeks to explore why the tight friendship between Rika, Australian expat Martha and local Laedi fell apart and why Rika felt betrayed by the others, yet even when the events were revealed I still wasn’t really sure what the issue was. I had trouble with some of the clan relationships, too; Jacob and Aaron were said to be brothers, yet were from rival clans. It’s possible that this was explained away and on both my read-throughs I just missed it, but I did feel that the occasional clear explanation would have been merited.
Furthermore, I felt that the experience would have been enriched if there was more description of what the bark-cloth paintings actually entailed; how the bark-cloth was made, its texture, and maybe even a photograph of similar art on the back cover to really give the reader a feel for it. I spent much of the story trying to work out what bark-cloth actually was, and while the illustrations on the inside front and back covers give an idea, they still don’t really indicate what a work of art the finished product is.
That said, though, it was certainly a haunting book. Rika’s experiences with Aaron, her estrangement from his clan (whether real or imagined initially, it was obviously there at the end) and I could feel Jericho’s frustration in the second part as no one seemed to be able (or perhaps willing) to explain things to him. Milton’s story, for a while seeming to be there almost as comic relief, became much more poignant as the book went on, and the progress of not only Laedi and Jacob during the years of independence, but also Bili (and, across the seas, Jericho) felt only fitting to how they had been depicted in the first part. There was a real sense of place; Port Moresby, the Mountain of the title, the fjords and Collingwood Bay – I could picture them all, and almost felt I had been there. The setting, and the characters within, are nothing if not evocative. The clans, too, were real and very human, from the subjects of Leonard’s film on the Mountain, to Aaron’s family in the fjords. All had strong characters and easily understood motivations, even if their cultures were unfamiliar. In that, she did an incredible job.
Equally, the politics of the time was captured incredibly well,with the reluctance of some of the indigenous population to accept a relationship between a black man and a white woman, the violence, the move towards independence and the struggles some of those living outside the capital had in making sense of what was happening. Modjeska truly captured the feel of a country torn in two as it tries to establish itself.
All in all, The Mountain is a very well-written and researched book, and I have certainly learned much about Papua New Guinea and its history from reading it. There was something missing, however – whatever it is that makes you want to read on at any cost, that need to know more. I appreciated this book and I respect it. I only wish I could have enjoyed it more.