The Ivory Swing won Canada’s fifty-thousand-dollar Seal First Novel Contest in 1982 and was nominated in the United Kingdom for the Booker Prize. It was developed from the short story “Waiting,” which won an “Atlantic First” citation when published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1978. An unusually mature and accomplished first novel, it introduces many of the themes that continue to distinguish Hospital’s work: the pleasure and anguish of cross-cultural interaction, alienation and belonging, women’s experience. The titles of two later works signal these thematic preoccupations: Borderline (1985) and Dislocations (1986).
Hospital’s life, from her birth and youth in Australia to her settling in Canada, with sojourns in Boston, Los Angeles, and India, represents the mixing of cultures that animates her work. Her writing seeks to remind one of the multiple perspectives and levels of meanings implicit in any object or event, a purpose that strains against the predominantly realist mode of narration she chose for The Ivory Swing. The novel draws on its author’s wide reading in the classics of English literature and in Indian fiction, newspapers, and magazines. Both contexts are built into the novel’s construction of its own reality. There are moments when the juxtapositions seem forced and even heavy-handed, the symbolism strained or obvious, problems that cannot be fully explained by the novel’s concern with drawing connections between jarring differences. Yet The Ivory Swing succeeds brilliantly in its evocation of mood and atmosphere, and in compelling attention to moral questions of responsibility that cannot be easily resolved.