South Pacific

South Pacific
Samantha Gillison
The Undiscovered Country
Grove

Your marriage is on the rocks. To revitalize relations with your wife, you:

a) buy her a new Jaguar. She'll get cuddly again in no time;

b) take her on a wine-tasting trip to Provence, France, where a marriage is saved every 13 seconds;

c) decide that you need to finish your doctoral dissertation in Papua New Guinea, a sweltering, godforsaken landmass populated by rats, bats, and fist-sized bugs.

Having a better nose for adventure than for marriage rescue, Peter Campbell, the protagonist of Samantha Gillison's suspenseful first novel, The Undiscovered Country, chooses the riskiest option. A biologist finishing his dissertation at Harvard, Peter is denied funding to study a bloodborne parasite peculiar to remote highland regions of Papua New Guinea. His wife June, a housewife and heiress to a small fortune, bails him out by funding the trip herself. And despite occasional misgivings about taking their 7-year-old daughter Taylor to one of the wildest places on the planet, the Campbells bring her along too. A little fresh air can't hurt, right?

The Campbells settle in the tiny highland village of Abini, where their only connection to the modern world is a shortwave radio, and where the natives greet them at sunrise by staring through their bedroom window. On the research front, progress is glacially slow. Peter, who has a rudimentary command of Pidgin but not of the particular mountain tongue spoken by the villagers, files erroneous research data and must start from scratch every few weeks. June spends some time doing fieldwork with her husband, but most of the day she stays indoors, reading Henry Miller, ordering groceries from Australia, and thinking about her marriage.

Only Taylor, little blond Cambridge-bred Taylor, seems to have adapted to her new surroundings. With a posse of village kids, she goes off each morning deep into the rain forest and returns just before the afternoon downpour, covered in mud, flowers, and skin lesions. Within weeks, she becomes fluent in the Abini dialect, and soon enough she refuses to speak English altogether. As their daughter becomes a stranger to them, and life in an alien culture grows increasingly oppressive, the Campbells' marriage begins to collapse altogether.

Family strife at the end of civilization may sound like a travel-adventure tale at first (or an unlikely sequel to The Mosquito Coast): There are vivid descriptions of the tropical landscapes, stunning sketch-portraits of the local population, and lines of dialogue in Pidgin. But Gillison's three main characters are so complex and so riddled with contradictions that their relationships consume the page. As the author reveals the topography of the threatening and glorious landscape, she also maps out the perilous emotional terrain of this eccentric nuclear family.

The Undiscovered Country ends on a brutal note, reminding us that the wild offers no redemption. Or, at the very least, it has no interest in acting as marriage counselor.

 
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