Janette Turner Hospital Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The most common critical remarks made about the fiction of Janette Turner Hospital focus on her geographical and cultural dislocation. Although she has encouraged such a multicultural approach in an era fascinated by marginality by titling her first short-story collection Dislocations and her second Isobars (imaginary lines on a map connecting points of equal pressure), Hospital’s focus on political and cultural issues has tended to neglect the universal psychological and philosophical implications of her short fiction.

While Hospital’s stories are often more conventionally structured than her frequently experimental novels, they are also more personal, arising from what author Elizabeth Bowen once called “necessariness”; Hospital’s stories, as Bowen says about the short story, seem to spring from an “impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough to make the writer write.”

Although many of Hospital’s stories focus on cultural differences, the emphasis is not on their social or political implications but rather on the more profoundly philosophical implications of the tensions between the concrete and the abstract, the poetic and the physical, between primeval spirituality and culturally constructed religion, between restraint and release, and, ultimately, between civilization and its discontents.

“Litany for the Homeland”

This story is important for understanding the uniquely personal and psychological way Hospital treats the theme of the relationship between two cultures. “Litany for the Homeland,” written in response to an Australian multicultural festival’s request that writers compose a piece on the subject of homelands, is the most explicit treatment of the theme. In this lyrical meditation, the female narrator recalls a time in Queensland when she was looking at the stars through a telescope and noticed a wild boy with a glittering eye beckoning to her from behind a rotten fence. She describes different embodiments of the boy with the glittering eye, all of whom have since seduced her away from abstraction and idealization. One of them, Paddy McGee, a young Irish Catholic boy, who rebels against schoolteachers, takes his beating and leaves, never to return.

“After Long Absence”

Another incarnation of the Paddy McGee character, Patrick Murphy, appears in “After Long Absence,” the story of a woman who visits her home in Queensland. She recalls that, when she was in the fifth grade, she was stigmatized by teachers and students for her parents’ fundamentalist religious beliefs. In the central event of the story, she remembers one Friday night in Brisbane, when she was with her father and others preaching against sin outside a theater. Patrick Murphy came out of the theater accompanied by a brassy platinum blond with big breasts and spiked heels. When the blond laughed at the “Holy Rollers,” Patrick said that such people have guts and that he “always did go for guts”; significantly, he gave the young protagonist a wink and a thumbs-up. The adult narrator, who has long since rebelled against her parents’ religious fundamentalism,...

(The entire section is 1302 words.)