Although Janette Turner Hospital has said she began this book in 1999 as an attempt to create a modern version of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, in the wake of 9/11 it has become a psychological and political thriller with “ripped from the headlines” relevance.
The two central characters, Lowell, a house painter, and Samantha, a student, are children of hostages killed in an Air France hijacking that took place thirteen years before. When Lowell’s father mysteriously dies and leaves him a bag of videotapes, the two discover that ten of the hostages on the doomed airplane were taken to an underground bunker in Iraq filled with poison gas and given the choice to die slowly as their air ran out or to die immediately by removing their masks.
Turner Hospital says she was well into writing the book when 9/11 occurred. After reading about the brave way so many of those trapped in the twin towers faced death, she changed her book’s painful account of the final hours of the last ten hostages, making it more about the universal problem of facing death than merely political intrigue.
Although Turner Hospital’s work has the usual CIA agents, government cover-ups, vicious villains, and budding romance ala Tom Clancy and John le Carre, she insists that her real inspirations were Boccaccio and Daniel Defoe. And indeed there are enough literary allusions here, combined with Turner Hospital’s literate style and grace, to crank this book several notches above the usual political thriller. Still and all, in interviews the displaced Australian writer seems delighted that she has written a book that has appeared in airport bookstores. There may still be more delight ahead for her if Hollywood becomes interested.