Fire on the Mountain by Jean McNeil
‘I do know this country, even if I have not been here before. It has been waiting for me. It is trying to speak to me. It says, Finally you’ve come.‘
When NGO worker Nick drops unexpectedly into the lives of Pieter and Sara Lisson, he feels he has found the parents he never had. Nick is enraptured by their lives of splendour and acclaim, their careers, their social circle, and by the stirring setting of the African city in which they live, under the watchful eye of the glowing mountain behind their home. Over the Christmas season, Nick meets the Lissons’ son, Riaan, and so begins and intense connection that runs far deeper than physical attraction…
The novel is slow-paced yet compelling, the story steady, the character of Nick introspective, unsure. Why he appears at Sara and Pieter’s doorstep unannounced is not revealed until the second half, his relationship to them even later. Nick, it seems, is constantly shuffling between different versions of himself, exploring, searching for one he feels comfortable with – ‘In cities, surrounded by infinite representations of ourselves, we shapeshift effortlessly.’
The African landscape is almost a character of its own, the bullish sun and sand-scrubbed dessert stretching for miles around Nick and Riaan for most of the novel. Despite this, the story feels placed in a dreamscape of sorts – we are told that we are in Africa, mapped by constellations, brazen sunsets and stalking leopards with their glowing green eyes, but the place names – Cabo Frio, Xaia, Nova Friburgo – are either places that exist elsewhere in the world, or places that don’t exist at all. The third-world descriptions and basic means of living that Nick and Riaan experience in the dessert, as well as the home of Sara and Pieter, which is extravagant but nonetheless feels removed from technology and outside communication, lends to this feeling of dreaminess that carries through the narrative.
There was something akin to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this novel, in as much as the characters plough simultaneously into the desert and into their own primal urges, finding themselves at one with the earth and with each other. In reflection of the flaming sunset, the scolding mountain, the language itself is intense, the dialogue clipped, curbed, to the point. It was also gorgeously poetic – I found something beautiful to underline on nearly every page of this poignant story.
Fire on the Mountain launched in paperback on February 15th 2018. Order the book from Legend Press in paperback or ebook here.