My goodness, this is a confronting novel! While the title was apparently deliberately chosen to echo Randolph Stow’s To the Islands, and the setting shares some geophysical similarities, Jon Doust’s new novel pursues existential issues of an entirely different kind.
Doust made his literary debut with Boy on a Wire, which was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2010. This novel, To the Highlands, is book two of what will become a trilogy called One Boy’s Journey to Man, and like book one, it is a work of fiction woven from the author’s own experiences. While Boy on a Wire was an expose of the brutality of boarding schools in the 1960s (click the link above to see my review), To the Highlands follows the same character into early adulthood, where the line between victim and perpetrator becomes blurred.
Narrated in the first person by the central character Jack Muir, To the Highlands is a coming-of-age story which charts some very bad behaviour indeed. Jack, (like the author), has failed his final year at a posh grammar school in Perth, disappointing his respectable parents and embarrassing his successful brother who’s studying law and will also be a respectable adult one day. Jack’s father uses his influence to get Jack a job in the Colonial Bank of Australia, and when he makes a mess of that because ‘numbers are not his strong point’, that influence is used to pack him off to work in a New Guinea branch of the bank.
(How interesting it is that while very few Australian novelists have exploited our neighbouring Papua and New Guinea as a setting, Drusilla Modjeska has just published The Mountain – also set there – within months of Jon Doust’s novel).
Well, alas for these parents’ ambitions for their wayward son, the islands offer a kind of freedom that only exacerbates his waywardness. It is 1968 and the papers which arrive from Australia each week remind Jack of political and social ferment around the world. Still a virgin, Jack is particularly interested in the sexual revolution, but had had no luck in Perth with the gorgeous girls of his social set. He very quickly learns that sexual mores in his new island home are different…
In no time at all Jack falls into a pattern of heavy drinking and reckless larrikinism with the other young men at the bank, and – once he sorts out which girls are available and which are unattainable – of regular sex. There is a lot about drinking and a lot about sex in this novel, and (to put it mildly) the language is frank. What I found especially distasteful was the brutally honest depiction of sex as a mechanical act to satisfy appetite, undertaken without any pretence of love or genuine affection, and exploitative across the colour bar. There is a sordid kind of truth about this tale: we know that many young men define manhood like this, and we know that in societies where people of colour have a lower social status, young men often use the women at will, with the issue of any consent ambiguous because of the difference in power relationships.
Jack’s search for manhood is conflicted by his sensual needs and his poorly developed moral code. He despises his parents and their conservatism, but has moments when he would like to make his father proud. He would like to love, but the women he might love are beyond his reach and so he uses what is available to him without compunction. He resents the way other men ‘own’ their women and use violence to protect them, but he himself lacks mastery of his own anger. And with none of the veneer of respectable society to restrain him, he takes what he wants, because he can.
Notwithstanding Jack’s immature, reckless and exploitative behaviour, there is something likeable about this anti-hero. He has an engaging self-deprecatory sense of humour, and beneath the braggadocio, there is an incipient moral core, not least about the racism which underpins all relationships in that time and place.
Is there redemption for Jack Muir? Not in this novel, only punishment. As we know from the letters which preface the book, he has a breakdown. (And a nasty infection).
Doust also tackles issues of colonialism, depicting the expat community as a bunch of racist second-rate nobodies who have an elevated sense of their own worth and entitlements which they don’t merit. He alludes to the coming of independence too, but there is little development of this strand in the novel.
I wonder what will become of Jack Muir in the third novel of the trilogy!