The author of The Undiscovered Country (1998) delicately portrays an alienated scion of America’s wealthiest family searching for spiritual solace in the earth’s wildest places.
Gillison, who lived for two years in New Guinea as a child, loosely bases her story on the life of Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared there in 1961. Her protagonist is Stephen Hesse, son of a working-class Englishwoman whom megarich Nicholas Hesse married while he was a student at Cambridge and divorced before their son turned two. Stephen grows up encased in his mother’s angry, obsessive love, yearning for closer contact with his father, who is proud of his eldest child’s academic brilliance but a bit aloof now that Nicholas is more suitably remarried. First a classics teacher at prep school and then an anthropology professor at Harvard show Stephen how an intellectual discipline might assuage some of his emotional needs. He falls in love with an older woman, “the only person in the world who could stop this aching in his chest,” but she sends him away not long after Stephen persuades his father to fund an expedition to New Guinea and use Hesse influence to get him invited, even though he’s less qualified than the other students. “I have found a place where I am completely at ease,” he writes in his notebook. But even among headhunters in the tropics, Stephen never truly shakes off the power and privilege he was born to, as he buys up native artifacts (including the skull of a young man he knew) and browbeats a Dutch diplomat and two guides into taking him out on a boat trip during monsoon season. Yet intelligent, needy Stephen is a sympathetic character, viewed with compassion by the author. Whatever faults he has, he pays for them with his life in an affecting climax that hints death might be what Stephen Hesse has sought all along.
Brooding, lyrical, and thoughtful, though the narrative, like Stephen himself, seems slightly distanced from the events it describes so eloquently.