book review: the mountain by drusilla modjeska

Papua New Guinea is a country rich with history and rich with a variety of people from different villages. From the Highlanders to the coastal and many in between, Papua New Guinea is a country filled with stories. These many stories are the basis of Drusilla Modjeska’s first novel The Mountain.

Split into two books (the first taking place from 1968-73 and the second from 2005-6) The Mountain introduces readers to a constellation of characters with vast cultural back stories. The key character in The Mountain is English filmmaker and anthropologist, Leonard, who journeys from England with his Dutch wife, Rika, to an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, where he studies and documents the lives of the locals.

Upon their arrival, Rika must learn to adjust to life in PNG as she develops friendships with the local Laedi and another visitor Martha, while working at the university. While Leonard is up on the mountain, Rika meets and falls for local man, Aaron, and everyone’s life is changed forever.

 “It was like a novel, she thought, arriving in a new place. It took a while to learn the characters, to know who to watch.”

Rika’s first impression of Papua New Guinea was similar to my first impression of the novel. It was filled with a variety of characters and while the novel was written in third person narration, it was, at times, exceedingly difficult to quickly grasp which characters perspective was being portrayed.

Rika was the character I found the most interesting. I love that she tried to understand the villages where she was living but taking photographs. I also found myself at odds with her and after finishing, I still struggle to understand her animosity towards Martha. I often find that the characters I relate to the least are the ones I am most drawn to.

The Mountain was rich with powerful imagery and cultural understandings of what Papua New Guinea was like when it was on the brink of independence. Though Modjeska states in the acknowledgements that The Mountain is a work of fiction, she also admits that she did a great deal of research to make her view of Papua as accurate as possible and without knowing much, I felt she did a fantastic job.

There were many cultural ideas expressed in The Mountain that I found particularly interesting, and most especially was the idea that many of the locals felt that by Aaron being beaten, he was henceforth tied to Rika. I found it interesting but I also disagreed and have a similar opinion to that of Jericho; “It may be illogical after all these years of pining for Bili, but he doesn’t believe spirits get trapped in each other, or that true love takes only one form”.

While extremely well written, I felt that The Mountain was far too busy for me personally. There were too many storylines and characters and after I finished reading, I struggled to put into a small paragraph what the story was actually about. Were we meant to focus more on Leonard and Rika or was it more about Jericho and Bili? I also wasn’t satisfied with where Rika was left, I felt that she didn’t get a proper ending. Having said that, I don’t feel the book was written with my age (21) in mind as the target audience.

It was a thought provoking read that provides an interesting insight to the many villages and societies that live in Papua New Guinea.

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