Fire on the Mountain by Jean McNeil – an experience!

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This is an unusual book. Rarely have I read a book which conveys so well the sense of a place that I have no experience of, conveys the sounds, heat, even the smells until I am completely convinced that I have been there! The desert, the lush vegetation of different parts of Africa becomes sometimes frightening and real in this book as the setting comes alive in all its threat and danger, and a fair bit of discomfort. There are also the characters; Nick, adrift in a world which he normally copes with so well, Pieter, angry author, Riaan, whose life view is unique as a result of his experiences. This moving, intelligent book presents a very different view of life on the edge in many ways.

Nick is a man who has seen much of the world in its extremes. He has changed careers to become a logistics manager for a NGO, rushing to the scenes of disasters and events where there is massive threat to life. He feels that he is difficult to shock, essentially in control, able to predict what will happen and crucially what to do about it. Suddenly he finds himself adrift in an amazing place, of beauty and scenery almost beyond description. He turns up on the doorstep of an unknown couple, a tenuous link means that he has never met Pieter and Sara before they generously offer him a flat and more in terms of companionship, largely as almost another son. When their son Riaan turns up for Christmas, he introduces so much uncertainty, yet so much attraction, Nick is alternatively mesmerised and angry. Riaan becomes more demanding and emotionally challenging, Nick discovers so much more not only about this strange young man but also about himself. There are flashbacks as he recalls people in his rootless past, and he questions everything he has ever experienced. A perilous journey has many implications for Nick and others, as life changing revelations occur.

This is a book of contrasts and challenges for the characters. I was disappointed that the women are a little one dimensional and quickly withdraw in the face of men’s conversations and experiences. Sara, Tanya and the other women mentioned in Nick’s past are not really developed as individuals. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the landscapes and the buildings within them, the concept of the mountain on the edge of the sea, the bleakness of a desert with no touch of modern developments. I had not appreciated that such vast landscapes existed and were not more tamed. The writing is intense and self consciously meaningful; McNeil is sometimes seemingly striving to keep the melodrama in check, as experience piles on events. This is not so much a book to enjoy as experience, it is a powerful comment on landscape and people within it. I was grateful to receive a review copy of this book, and recommend it for its strong view of men within a world which is almost alien in its strangeness.

Well, there is certainly a variety of books on this blog! “From Africa to Angela Thirkell”  Sounds like an intriguing Phd title!