Not many couples these days would try to save their marriage by moving to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. And this is probably just as well, given the island's drenching rainstorms, ubiquitous marsupial rats and flamboyantly awful parasites (I, at least, don't think that being host to a 30-foot tapeworm would do my love life any good). But for Peter and June Campbell, the American couple in Samantha Gillison's "The Undiscovered Country," the prospect of revitalizing their relationship in the wild isn't so far-fetched. As Peter writes in a letter home: "I think we decided to come here so far away from home, from the familiar, to get closer to each other, to penetrate the thick membrane that separated us from each other in 'civilization.'"
This is a highly romantic notion, of course, but "The Undiscovered Country" is hardly a romantic book. And sure enough, Peter, June and their daughter Taylor don't exactly thrive as a family once they take up residence in the remote mountain villages of Abini, where Peter has come to do fieldwork toward his doctorate. Financed with inheritance money from June's family, the Campbells hunker down for a year in the shadow of Mount Philip, determined to complete a study on blood parasites. Instead, they succumb to a creeping spiritual decay far more insidious than anything the local microorganisms can provoke.
Samantha Gillison has written an intense and frightening first novel, a keenly observed domestic drama played out against a backdrop of exotic flora and fauna -- think "Scenes From a Marriage" as filmed by a crew from National Geographic. Her work has drawn comparisons to that of Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, but the writer she resembles most is Paul Bowles, who made a career of tracing the moral and physical collapse of privileged Americans in malignant foreign climes. Like Bowles, Gillison has mastered the art of communicating as much through the silences between people as through their speeches. And she's learned the neat Bowlesian trick of blurring the thin line between revelation and delirium in her characters' perceptions, mingling true insight with the false vision of minds deranged by sickness, exhaustion and acute, end-stage culture shock.
But the novel's real strength is its utterly persuasive conjuring of life in the New Guinea highlands. Gillison renders the grotesque, threatening beauty of the landscape -- as well as the odd elusiveness of contacts between the Campbells and the local population -- with an authority unusual in a first-time novelist. I do wish she'd done more to differentiate the native Abini villagers as individuals; too often they just blend into the scenery, as opaque as the surrounding mountains. For the most part, though, "The Undiscovered Country" is an exceptional feat of storytelling, as vivid and powerful as a malaria dream -- and just as hard to shake from your system.