Gillison, Samantha 1967–
Gillison, Samantha 1967–
PERSONAL: Born April 7, 1967, in Melbourne, Australia; daughter of David (an artist) and Gillian (an anthropologist) Gillison; married Duncan Bork (a writer and editor), 1997; children: Henry. Education: Brown University, B.A.
CAREER: Writer, 1988–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Philadelphia City Paper Fiction contest winner, 1995; "The Best Fiction of 1998" designation, Los Angeles Times, 1998, for The Undiscovered Country; Whiting Writers' Award for fiction, Giles Whiting Foundation, 2000.
The Undiscovered Country, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1998.
The King of America, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The Furies, a book of short stories which examines the lives of seven women in different places and at different times of their lives.
SIDELIGHTS: In Samantha Gillison's first novel, The Undiscovered Country, a young couple tries to repair their marriage with disastrous results. Peter Campbell is a Harvard doctoral student who has failed to find funding for his research project. Believing in his research, Peter's wealthy wife, June, funds the project, and together the family travels to Papua New Guinea to carry out the intended research: the study of a blood-borne parasite that has impacted a remote village. June also secretly hopes that living outside of civilization will repair the rift that has established itself in their shaky marriage.
The family arrives in New Guinea to face the skepticism of local scientists, but they are helped to their new home in the village of Albini, where they stay in a hut until their house is erected. They face hardships immediately: the locale is full of insects and infectious diseases, and the primitive conditions make it hard to keep anything clean. After the initial relocation, June remains in a state of culture shock and feels extremely self-conscious, convinced the villagers consider her an oddity. Initially obsessed by his research, Peter eventually drifts off to spend time on men-only hunting expeditions. The biggest surprise to the couple is the reaction of their seven-year-old daughter, Taylor, who quickly learns the native language and spends more time with her new native friends than she does with her mother. Both parents fear that in the jungle, Taylor will lose all traces of her Boston upbringing. June finds herself increasingly isolated, spending time alone in their hut and trying to complete her husband's research while her resentment of both the research and of Peter grows.
Elizabeth Gaffney, reviewing The Undiscovered Country for the New York Times, remarked on the vivid descriptions of the landscape of New Guinea and noted the ironic contradiction of "a journey to the center of this exceptional story that is less scenic and more harrowing than any of the characters expect." A contributor to Publishers Weekly, remarking on the "terrible, beautiful economy" of Gillison's descriptions of a disintegrating marriage, enjoyed the "strikingly original" plot, which contrasted the lush New Guinea jungle with a darker story being played out within its shadows. A Detroit Free Press critic called The Undiscovered Country "a novel to admire, if not exactly love—there are no happy endings." Boston Phoenix writer Jennifer Coogan complimented Gillison for creating an "engaging and unforgettable portrait" of a Western couple who arrive together but find themselves increasingly split by circumstances.
In The King of America Gillison fictionalizes the story of Michael Rockfeller, who disappeared in Dutch New Guinea in the 1960s. In the novel, Stephen Hesse, the son of a millionaire, struggles to establish his own identity and seeks a career in anthropology that leads him to conduct research focusing on headhunters. The book follows Hesse as he experiences an awakening on the way to his inevitable disappearance. "Gillison is a quietly commanding writer who has some extremely provocative and important things to say about wealth, indigenous cultures, and the domination of Western civilization," wrote Donna Seaman in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the author "skips nimbly through time and space to create a moving portrait of an intellectual, enthusiastic young man." Alex Abramovich added in People that the novel "is smart and beautiful and contains a great deal to admire."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The King of America, p. 950.
Boston Phoenix, June 4, 1998, Jennifer Coogan, review of The Undiscovered Country.
Detroit Free Press, August 2, 1998, review of The Undiscovered Country, p. 7H.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1998, review of The Undiscovered Country, p. 421.
Library Journal, April 15, 1998, review of The Undiscovered Country, p. 112.
New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1998, Elizabeth Gaffney, review of The Undiscovered Country, p. 27.
People, April 5, 2004, Alex Abramovich, review of The King of America, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1998, review of The Undiscovered Country, p. 75; February 16, 2004, review of The King of America, p. 150.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (October 28, 2005), Alden Mudge, "Samantha Gillison Weaves Fact and Fiction in a Mesmerizing New Novel,"interview with author.