May 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Mountain' by Drusilla Modjeska

By Robyn Annear
'The Mountain' by Drusilla Modjeska, Vintage; $32.95

It comes as a surprise to realise that The Mountain is Drusilla Modjeska’s first novel, since her writing – acclaimed and awarded as non-fiction – has always inhabited the tidal zone between fact and fiction.

Set in Papua New Guinea, The Mountain is a novel in two parts. Book One spans the five years leading up to PNG self-government in 1973; Book Two returns to the scene in the near-present. Common to both parts is their characters’ sense of dislocation: of being an imperfect fit, of failing to live up to cultural expectations.

Rika arrives in Port Moresby in 1968 with her husband Leonard, an anthropologist bound for a remote mountain village. Left behind in Moresby, Rika is caught up in the mood of approaching independence. Besides the expat university crowd, she befriends Jacob and Aaron, clan-brothers from Papua’s fjord coast. Both young men are impatient for change, but it is Aaron to whom people look as a leader; “He’ll be prime minister one day.”

He and Rika are drawn to one another, overcoming bigotry and her pallid marriage to be together. But, as years pass and she fails to bear his child, Aaron’s clansfolk at the fjords begin to suspect Rika of sorcery. “Son of ours. Brother. Come back,” they call after Aaron. “Return to us. Oh misfortune.”

Book One ends with Rika being offered a ‘gift child’ to raise: a hapkas boy – the child of a black mother and white father. His name is Jericho and Book Two is the story of his return, more than 30 years later, to PNG and to the mountain of his birth. Raised and educated in England, Jericho is drawn back by a sense that it behoves him to repay the people of the mountain for the gift that he once was.

There’s a mystery at the centre of The Mountain, in the gap between its two parts. When Book Two opens Aaron is dead, and it is Jericho’s object, and the reader’s, to find out what happened. In the end, it is Rika’s friend and reluctant witness, Martha, who brings not resolution but, in Modjeska’s characteristic style, an eddying approach to it:


He’s always assumed it’s narration he needs: interpretation, explanation. And yet, as Martha gives it to him, he knows from the tone of her voice when she keeps a detail to herself, and he finds to his surprise that it does not matter. What she gives him reminds him of something he should have known all along, and did – that it is form, and contour, the shape things make in space, the absences that are left between them that matters. Not the detail. Or even the narrating voice. Not only.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue

Drawing by Barrie Marshall of the winning Australian pavilion design. Image courtesy of Denton Corker Marshall.

A White Cube in a Black Box

Denton Corker Marshall’s design for Australia’s new Venice Biennale pavilion

Campbell Newman. © Brian Cassey

Comment: The Shock Jock Rule of Campbell Newman

A male satin bowerbird collects decorations for his bower. © Cyril Ruoso/Minden Pictures


Tim Birkhead’s 'Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird'

Statue of a kouros in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. © Jean-Pierre Lescourret/Corbis

The Insult

An incurious encounter takes flight

More in Noted

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality