It was 1968. The world was falling apart. Bits of it were burning. In Europe, Britain and America students were running amok. In Perth they did what they always did: studied, got pissed, stumbled in and out of relationships, played tennis, went to the beach, fought, fucked, bragged about fucks that never existed, and drove cars into trees. When I left school most of the kids in my year went on to university, as they should, because Grammar School expected it, their parents expected it, they expected it. They were future leaders and had to be groomed to take over. My shocked and horrified parents did not cope well with my final exam results and my mother tried to rip my face off. Dad stepped in, pushed Mum out of the way, and gave me to the bank, Australia’s first bank, the Colonial Bank of Australia. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and hauled me down to the local bank and said to the manager: Take him, or I’ll kill him. Well, he didn’t say that, but his look did.
So begins To the Highlands, a novel that might be read as stand-alone, but also one that follows on chronologically from Boy on a Wire (Fremantle Press, 2009). It depicts the year in the life of Jack Muir following his lacklustre departure his exclusive grammar school for boys and his entry into the adult world.
Jack, the son of disappointed parents, and reluctant employee of The Colonial Bank of Australia, is dispatched to the capital of a regional outpost, in an unnamed island somewhere to the north of Australia. Like the capital itself, the country’s highlands – to which Jack is subsequently demoted in further disgrace – have a familiar feel to them. One suspects, very strongly, that this place might be Papua New Guinea.
In 1968, the greater world is full of upheaval and protest, warring and lovemaking. Its events are a million miles away from Jack’s sleepy and complacent Perth. But on the island, Jack falls into his own kind of revolution as he is lured by the irresistible promises of a sometimes brutal hedonism: on the island Jack comes to lose (at last!) his virginity and many of his inhibitions.
But if Jack and his compatriots are there for sport, there are locals for whom the precipice of independence is a serious matter indeed. So Jack meets the beautiful, talented, and unattainable Margaret Baker, being groomed to assume her rightful place amongst the classes of educated and elite, and he meets George Kanluna, powerful and impressive, watching and waiting for the moment his country will seize independence.
To the Highlands is a book set in a time and a place where a clear-sighted interrogation of colonialism could scarcely be expected of the white people who worked within its system. Jack Muir comes to the island with no more insight than many of his contemporaries, but his growing discomfort in a murky moral terrain becomes a mirror for the relationship between two countries poised (though to varying degrees) on the verge of maturation.
This novel is more than the story of one boy’s journey to man: it is an unflinching metaphor for a less than salutary chapter in Australia’s colonial history, laying bare, as it does, uncomfortable aspects our own national identity.