Jack Muir, 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.