Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905
In 1986 Janette Turner Hospital was named one of Canada’s ten best fiction writers under the age of forty-five. Hospital is not a native Canadian, however; she was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1942, the eldest child and only daughter in a family so religiously conservative that, as a teenager,...
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- Critical Essays
In 1986 Janette Turner Hospital was named one of Canada’s ten best fiction writers under the age of forty-five. Hospital is not a native Canadian, however; she was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1942, the eldest child and only daughter in a family so religiously conservative that, as a teenager, she was not allowed to go to the movies or out on dates. When she was still quite young, the family moved north to Brisbane, Queensland. It was not until she was twenty years old and had taken a job teaching high school English in a rough coastal town that Hospital finally attained some degree of freedom and independence. The bewilderment she experienced because of this sudden change in her lifestyle surfaced years later in a short story called “You Gave Me Hyacinths,” which appeared in Malahat Review and was later reprinted in Hospital’s first short-story collection, Dislocations.
In 1965 Hospital married Clifford G. Hospital, a comparative religion scholar. At the same time, she continued her own education at the University of Queensland, earning a B.A. in 1966. In 1967 the Hospitals left Australia for the United States, where Clifford took a teaching position and Janette became a librarian at Harvard University. During their years in Boston the couple had two children, Geoffrey and Cressida. In 1971 the family moved to Kingston, Ontario, where Clifford began teaching at Queens University.
It was not until 1974 that Hospital began writing seriously, producing several short stories that were published in prestigious magazines and journals such as The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, Queen’s Quarterly, and The Yale Review. Her career advanced rapidly after 1977, in part as a result of a trip to India, where she and the children accompanied Clifford on an extended research sabbatical. The cultural disorientation she experienced in India led directly to a short story entitled “Waiting,” which won an Atlantic Monthly “first” citation in 1978. She later expanded this story into her first novel, The Ivory Swing, which won Canada’s prestigious Seal Award (including a financial award of fifty thousand dollars) in 1982. The novel’s main character ultimately realizes that she is a cultural stranger—and prisoner—to both India and Canada; one can surmise that Hospital has had difficulty finding her own cultural niche as well.
Hospital seemed to recognize the success of incorporating her own experiences into her fiction. After returning from India, she began using Kingston as a “home base,” taking short-term teaching and writer-in-residence positions elsewhere that would afford her the opportunity to travel extensively. One such position was at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. In the course of her Boston-Kingston commute, Hospital crossed the United States-Canada border many times, an event that seems commonplace but which became a pivotal element in the plot of her third novel, Borderline. Published in 1985, this novel earned far more international attention than The Ivory Swing or The Tiger in the Tiger Pit, in part due to her experimentation with narrative and her profound message that the personal safety taken for granted by the Western World is perhaps a tenuous thing.
Hospital’s time at MIT also seemed to influence her next novel, Charades, in which Hospital applies the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to her characters’ lives. Charade Ryan is a mysterious young Australian woman who has traveled to Boston to learn more about her ambiguous past. Fascinated by her lover’s research into the origins of the universe, Charade concludes that in life, as in Schroedinger’s cat paradox, two opposing truths can exist until an observer forces one possibility to disappear by opening the box. Oddly, although Hospital does not write science fiction, her use of the uncertainty principle in Charades foreshadowed a 1990’s trend in which many science-fiction writers applied quantum physics to everyday reality.
Later travels continued to direct the course of Hospital’s fiction. In 1989 she spent a semester at the University of Sydney, where her explorations of the city led her to discover a strange juxtaposition between those with wealth and power and those in poverty, a central theme in The Last Magician. Hospital uses the Hades-like “Quarry”—a maze of caverns and tunnels gradually carved out by the city’s dislocated street people—as a metaphor for the seedy Sydney underground with which Hospital became acquainted through her experience and research. The novel’s preoccupation with homelessness, a prevalent issue in the 1990’s, demonstrates Hospital’s ability to modernize her writing so that it remains relevant to her readers.
Oyster is another novel with a topic timely at its publication in 1998: religious cults and millennial fever. The novel takes place in a town so far into the Australian Outback that it does not appear on maps; into a society composed of opal miners and holy-roller religious fanatics comes a charismatic New Age-y cult leader named Oyster. After his increasingly bizarre reign comes to a fiery end, the five survivors recall the corruption and destruction he caused.
Janette Turner Hospital is a writer who has continued to grow and incorporate new experiences and thoughts into her fiction. Although her unusual prose style has been criticized by some as lurid and overwritten, others have concluded that its lush, sensual nature makes Hospital’s writing truly unique. Her widely diverse experiences and the fiction that has resulted from them are difficult to categorize, but it is obvious that the nature of her life has helped give her writing its own identity.