John Bemrose (review date 6 March 1989)
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SOURCE: “Just Being Alive,” in Macleans, March 6, 1989, p. 62.
[In the following review, Bemrose concludes that Charades is “an uneven achievement.” While praising Hospital's vivid writing and incorporation of science themes, Bemrose finds shortcomings in the novel's evasive cleverness.]
Oscar Wilde's words—“Truth is rarely pure and never simple”—could stand as an epigraph for Janette Turner Hospital's fourth novel, Charades, a book that is as much mind-tease as story, as much about what did not happen as what did. Hospital has seemed on the verge of writing such a novel for some time. Ever since the Australian-born writer burst onto the Canadian literary scene with The Ivory Swing, which won the Seal first-novel award for 1982, her richly inventive, highly intuitive prose has strained to escape beyond the borders of ordinary perceptions and narrative style. Now, with the example of certain Latin American and European writers before her, Hospital has broken through into her own convoluted and fascinating fictional wonderland, where truth is something to pursue but never quite catch.
Hospital's heroine, Charade Ryan, is a young, footloose Australian woman whose global wanderings are driven by an intense desire to assemble the known fragments of her past into some kind of meaningful picture. Above all, she wants to find her father, Nicholas Truman, a philandering university lecturer from England who years earlier had a fling with Charade's mother, Bea. As the novel opens, Charade's search has brought her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—the Cambridge university where Hospital herself is currently in her fourth term as writer in residence. There, Charade has an affair with a brilliant professor of theoretical physics, Koenig. Most of the novel consists of their pillow talk as Charade, who seems to prefer conversation to making love, spins out various possible versions of her past to the bemused physicist.
There is something desperate about Charade. It soon becomes clear that she is a compulsive talker who must keep the words flowing in order to feel real. “If I stop talking,” she tells Koenig, “I'll vanish like camphor.” And for all her avowals that she is looking for the truth, there is something evasive in her monologues, too, as if perhaps the real truth about her life were something that she would rather avoid. She discovers it anyway: at the end of the novel, she finally stumbles onto some traumatic revelations about her birth. And while the information may not be what she was looking for, at least it offers some clues as to why Charade is so driven and unhappy.
Charade's desperation lends the book an aura of feverish brilliance. And her intellectual curiosity allows Hospital to make the bravest and most complex use of scientific theory in a novel since John Updike's Roger's Version. In Koenig's explanations of his work, Charade finds a tenuous justification for the elusive, paradoxical quality that reality has for her. Koenig tells her how, in science, two researchers will often come up with contradictory yet mathematically demonstrable results. Such situations led Koenig to call the possibility of knowing anything for certain “a useful fraud.”
Charades is a compendium of such frauds, some more useful—or entertaining—than others. Charade tells several highly contrasting versions of how she came to be. At times, she seems to disappear altogether while her story flows from the viewpoint of other characters, including her bawdy, lower-class mother—whom Charade labels “The Slut of the Tamborine Rain Forest”—and Bea's more reserved, scholarly girlfriend, Katherine Sussex. The two carry on a running rivalry over Nicholas, who in turn is hopelessly bound to a beautiful but highly neurotic Holocaust survivor. As the narrative moves through and around those characters, the effect is at once disorienting and exciting, rather like participating in a magic trick with a masterful magician.
Yet, for all its sleight of hand, Charades is an uneven achievement. At times, Hospital's cleverness seems to be a smoke screen hiding an absence of anything important to say. Part of the problem is that Charade's exchanges with Koenig become a series of predictable gestures and attitudes. As well, Hospital, like her own heroine, frequently dances away from an anecdote before its narrative impact has been solidly established. Still, many incidents—particularly those evoking childhood—are as vibrant and compelling as the Australian landscape in which they are set. Katherine recalls how, one day on a school outing, she climbed a mountain by herself and experienced a moment of ecstasy. “She had a sense of herself as a solar whiteness,” Hospital writes, “without shape, without limits in time or space, pulsing with a kind of exaltation whose only analogue might be the dramatic rush of wind at the rainy edge of a cyclone.” It is in such passages, in such language, that Charades reaches beyond mere intellectual brilliance and touches something of the paradoxical quality of being alive.
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Janette Turner Hospital 1942-
(Also has written under pseudonym Alex Juniper) Australian novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Hospital's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 42.
Australian native Hospital is recognized for the sumptuous, complex, highly descriptive language of her fiction. Hospital, who considers herself an “unintentional nomad,” has lived in Australia, Canada, the United States, Great Britain, France, and India—all places that have left indelible marks on her psyche and on her writing. Her favorite characters are those who live on the fringes of society, such as prostitutes, drug dealers, and street people of all descriptions. Best known for her novels Borderline (1985) and The Last Magician (1992) and her short story collection Isobars (1990), Hospital's work lends eloquent voice to the effects of displacement on humanity and vividly describes conflicts between culture and gender.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Hospital moved with her family to Brisbane when she was seven. Her parents, Adrian and Elsie Turner, were deeply religious people who belonged to an evangelical, fundamentalist sect of the Pentecostal faith and who read the King James Bible nightly around the dinner table. The world outside their home, however, was working-class Australia, which was typically anti-authoritarian and anti-religious. Consequently, from the beginning of her life, Hospital found herself negotiating diverse cultures and feeling like an outsider—themes that would later come to dominate her writing. Hospital received a B.A. from the University of Queensland in 1966. While at college, she taught high school English in Brisbane from 1963 to 1966. In 1965 she married Clifford G. Hospital, a scholar of comparative religion and a specialist in Sanskrit. She and her husband left Australia, and from 1967 through 1971, she worked at Harvard University as a librarian. In 1973 Hospital received an M.A. from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. A scholar of medieval literature, much of her writing includes allusions to authors such as Dante Alighieri. Hospital went on to teach English at both St. Lawrence College and Queen's University from 1973 to 1982. She accepted appointments as writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1989; the University of Ottawa in 1987; the University of Sydney and La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, in 1989; Boston University in 1991; and the University of East Anglia, England, in 1996. Hospital returned to La Trobe University as an adjunct professor of English from 1990 to 1993. She also lived in India while her husband was on sabbatical in 1977. This experience inspired her first novel, The Ivory Swing (1982), which received the Seal First Novel Award from Seal Books. She was awarded the Atlantic First Citation in 1978 from Atlantic Monthly, and received another Citation from the magazine in 1982 for her short story, “Waiting.” Hospital's first collection of short stories, Dislocations (1986), received the CDC Literary Prize and, in 1988, the Fellowship of Australian Writers Award. In 1989 her novel Charade (1988) was awarded the Torgi Award from the Canadian Association for the Blind and the Australian National Book Council Award. The Last Magician, was considered for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1992. Hospital has also written a mystery novel, A Very Proper Death (1990), under the pseudonym Alex Juniper. Hospital remains an international itinerant, living in Australia, North America, and Europe during different parts of the year.
Before Hospital was a novelist, she was an honored short story writer, and she continues to work in this genre. The stories in her first collection, Dislocations, explore the fragmentary elements of contemporary life and show characters of many nationalities responding to upheaval as an opportunity for growth. The final story in the collection, “After Long Absence,” shows the protagonist trying to return to her family despite her resentment for having been raised a Jehovah's Witness, for which she was ostracized by other children. In the end, she is unable to compromise and learns that she is truly homeless, even in the midst of her parents and siblings. In Hospital's second collection, Isobars, the characters exist in a limbo between past and present and are often haunted by ghosts. In “A Little Night Music,” a male passenger on an airline flight continually apologizes to his nervous female seatmate, who had barely missed a previous flight that was destroyed by an explosion. After the plane lands, she sees the man's picture in a newspaper and discovers that he was the ghost of the terrorist who bombed the ill-fated flight and perished with all aboard. “The Last of the Hapsburgs,” another piece featuring a ghostly presence, focuses on the theme of dislocation. The title characters are the surviving members of a Jewish family that persevered through the Holocaust. They are endlessly jeered in the parochial area of Queensland where they live. On Friday nights, they gather and listen to the violin played by the ghost of their eldest son, who perished in a concentration camp. Hospital's first novel, The Ivory Swing, grew from her experiences living in India with her husband. Through observing the marginalized position of a widowed woman in a wealthy Indian household, Hospital examines several cultural paradoxes and the effects they have on all the characters involved. In The Tiger in the Pit (1983), Hospital presents a family drama around the arrangement of an anniversary celebration. (The title is taken from a T. S. Eliot poem and also alludes to the novel's cantankerous patriarch.) The story is told through different points of view that juxtapose the perceptions of the family members and their tangled personal histories. Borderline, the novel that established Hospital as a major writer, again explores one of her recurring themes—dislocation. While waiting to cross the border between the United States and Canada, Felicity and her companion discover an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. On impulse, they rescue the immigrant from the freezer van where she is hidden and take her to a remote cottage in Quebec. The remainder of the book focuses on the woman's subsequent disappearance and her would-be rescuers' attempts to repair the harm they caused. Borderline functions not only as a thriller, but also as an examination of both personal and political boundaries.
Charade, Hospital's next novel, attempts to link the world's cultures and the wonders of the physical world to a human search for origins. The plot weaves together allusions to Scherherazade's One Thousand and One Nights, Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and the Australian search for roots and identity; all in the context of the protagonist's year-long affair with a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her search for the father she never knew. The Last Magician is a novel of alternative realities, replete with medieval symbolism. The novel is set primarily in Australia, and is peopled with outsiders living on the fringes of society. Hospital follows the lives of four childhood friends who, partly as the result of a terrifying shared secret, have evolved into adults that deal with the past in vastly different ways. Set in a fictive Sydney, the novel exposes this shared secret and the impact it has on her characters' lives. Hospital uses these revelations to comment on the contrast between rich and poor in first-world countries and human beings' perceptions of reality. Oyster (1996), her latest novel, is set in the remotest part of the Australian Outback, a place called Outer Maroo. Far from the stereotype of wilderness tales with noble pioneers bringing civilization to the savages, Oyster is filled with questionable characters and acts of violence. In the novel, Outer Maroo consciously cuts itself off from all communication outside its borders in an attempt to erase the world's memory of it. Everyone in the town has been implicated in the mistreatment of slave laborers who once mined precious opals. The entire population of Outer Maroo continues to benefit financially from the ill-gotten profits and they now have a vested interest in keeping the truth a secret.
Hospital's work has been praised for its lush language that, despite its complexity, manages to maintain an airy quality. Many critics consider her to be an expatriate Australian writer (a label that Hospital disdains) who is at her best when her work is set in Australia. However, some reviews note that American readers may find Hospital's work somewhat challenging due to its profusion of unfamiliar Australian place names. Additionally, her novels, most notably The Last Magician, have been criticized for being difficult reads and for attempting to cover too much material, whether through plot, theme, or characterization. Hospital is esteemed by many reviewers as a “prose stylist,” whose fertile imagination and imagery reveal a serious author unafraid to take chances with profound themes. Still, there are critics who argue that Hospital's work is often hampered by an overuse of literary allusions, ambiguous conclusions, and difficult plot lines that tend to limit her audience.
Valerie Miner (review date 23 April 1989)
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SOURCE: “The 1,001 Australian Nights,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 23, 1989, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following review, Miner offers a positive assessment of Charades.]
Many Americans will read this wildly imaginative novel as a contemporary version of “1,001 Nights” or as an attempt to reconcile the Angst of our post-Nazi Holocaust, pre-nuclear holocaust era by understanding scientific theories. Indeed, Janette Turner Hospital's stunning fourth novel is a resurrection of Scherherazade as well as an extrapolation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. It reads even more provocatively as an Australian odyssey of self-determination.
Charades opens in a dimly lit office at MIT. Prof. Koenig looks up from his article on theoretical physics to find a young woman reading over his shoulder. The beautiful, irreverent visitor from Oz compliments his writing and introduces herself as the friend of someone he does not remember. Is he dreaming? Is Charade, he wonders, simply a metaphor for his guilt about his former wife?
Thus begin the 366—not 1,001—nights of a mysterious love affair between the quixotic traveler and the spiritually threadbare middle-aged academic. Their pasts intersect in peripheral, yet significant ways. Their relationship emerges in antipodean mirror images. Only by talking obsessively, night after night, can Charade unknot the painful secrets of her parentage. The listening sustains Koenig enough so that he can turn from his safe academic abstractions, begin to confront his own past and imagine a personal future.
Charade speaks with classic Australian self-deprecatory brashness. She inherits an Anglo-Celtic schizophrenia, assuming one set of legacies from the English upper class and another from the Irish convict class. Her loving, earthy mother represents the essence of home: In fact she was born on January 26, Australia Day. Her father is absent, foreign, ephemeral. Her own name is both symbolic—for she does not know what part of herself is real—and homophonous—because in the abbreviated Australian vernacular (mossies, barbies, journos)—Scherherazade could well be clipped to Charade. Like many young Australians, she travels widely, casting nets for her identity and discovering, at least, who she is not.
The various British Empire cousins bear more than a touch of parody. Charade's English relatives are caricatures of pathetic pretention. Canada is portrayed as a respite for the sensible and timid Aunt Kay. The United States is personified by a sympathetic, but clueless mid-life professor who takes himself too seriously. Australia is young, vibrant, a wee bit dazzled by the Northern Hemisphere but ultimately enlightened about the richness of its own culture.
Charade is reared in the Tambourine Rain Forest, near the east coast (barrier reef) of Australia. “… my mum would stare and shake her head. Never seen anything like it, she would say. There were always brothers and sisters, older and younger, falling all over one another and me. It was a small and noisy place, a fibro shack with lizards on the walls, and racks and holes that were hung with sacks of spiders’ eggs. But I would wedge myself into a corner, two sides protected, cross-legged on the floor, a book propped open on my knees, and I wouldn't even deign to acknowledge the company.”
During her erratic, tender affair with Koenig, Charade explains that she is working at odd jobs around the world while searching for her father. Originally, a coincidence draws her together with the physicist. Later, she learns he was born the same year as her father and that his wife bears marked similarities to her mother. The incest metaphor is played out on many levels.
This is not a linear narrative. Reading the novel is rather like scrambling for keys through an untidy desk. You discover a lost letter, a misplaced message, an unfinished task, a whole life to which keys are an incidental distraction. Hospital writes with luminous wit and ripe sensuality about the sublime and the wretched. The most powerful scenes border on taboo:
“When I was six or seven, she says, I found a dead man in the rain forest and I kept him as a pet. He was my secret. I suppose he was a swaggie. … And his smell had its hooks into me. … Every day I held a handkerchief over my nose and mouth and watched the ants: the way they embroidered him and covered him with soft brown bunting. Birds spoke to him, and perhaps it was their beaks that punctured his purple balloon-skin. … And then he began to deflate, at first quickly with little shudders …, but after that slowly, silkily, peacefully, like a glove as a hand withdraws. Each day he was thinner and flatter. I liked him better then, because his smell had escaped from him, bubbling away between the ferns. When he was clean and white inside his muddy clothes, when he smelled as sweet and yeasty as moss, I put flowers in his eyes. You can be my father, I told him.”
The novel is also a seductive intellectual exercise in which Charade tries to comprehend her life in the context of Koenig's scientific explanations about chance and probability. “And I subscribe, generally speaking, to the Copenhagen view,” Koenig says, leaving the lectern of the bedpost and pacing back and forth from dresser to door. “I think Bohr and Heisenberg won that argument over against Einstein; I think it's past denying. The imprecision of all perception. The observer, by imposing a particular set of questions, also predetermines the answers he will find.”
Charade's “particular set of questions” is evoked by the very names of her friends and relatives. Father is Nicholas—“St. Nick”—Truman—“true man.” Mother is. Bea—“Queen Bee,” whose nature is simply to “be” with her brood of multifathered children in the forest. And the heart of her search is the elusive Verity, in whom lies a strange, important truth.
It is a measure of Hospital's lush talent that none of this seems contrived. She takes the reader on an exuberant tour of quantum physics, Middle Eastern mythology, the comparative cultural legacies of British imperialism and still leaves you caring about her characters. What happens to Charade and Koenig together and apart is left appropriately open. All you know is that they are both the better for their idiosyncratic affair and temporarily at opposite ends of the Earth.
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The Ivory Swing (novel) 1982
The Tiger in the Tiger Pit (novel) 1983
Borderline (novel) 1985
Dislocations (short stories) 1986
Charades (novel) 1988
Isobars (short stories) 1990
A Very Proper Death [as Alex Juniper] (novel) 1990
The Last Magician (novel) 1992
Collected Stories: 1970-1995 (short stories) 1995
Oyster (novel) 1996
Edith Pearlman (review date October 1991)
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SOURCE: A review of Isobars, in Boston Review, Vol. XVI, No. 5, October, 1991, pp. 27-8.
[In the following review, Pearlman offers a tempered assessment of Isobars, which she finds challenging and vivid, but also confusing and indulgent.]
The title story begins the collection. Maybe it shouldn't. “Isobars,” subtitled “A Fugue on Memory,” is a difficult piece of work. It borrows its form from the musical fugue: statement and counterstatement. This unlinear method of telling demands collaboration from the reader who has idly selected the book from the New Fiction table. He may put it down again, confused. The writer makes free with place names unfamiliar to an American: names like Ringwood and Ballarat. (Most of the stories take place in Australia.) The heroine of “Isobars” enters in a burst of wordplay as M: “for Made in Melbourne, maid in Melbourne, for memory itself.” Next she turns into Em, then Emily. Emily grows up to be a writer, so we can assume that she's a stand-in for Janette Turner Hospital, anticly renaming herself. (The above break is not a misprint. Transitions in this story are made not with words but with typography, within sentences, in an apparent effort to replicate in prose the meteorologist's isobar, an imaginary line on a map connecting places of equal pressure.)
Not an easy story at all. In it Janette Turner Hospital reveals her quirkiness. But she reveals also her strengths. Emily walks with her two grandfathers on the shore of a lake: “With a grandfather at each side like charms at her wrists, Emily flexes her toes, she sinks her bare feet into gurgling mud.” We are quickly allied with this child, who makes her bewildered way through the swirls of memory, of events variously interpreted, of cruel episodes—a drowning, a stabbing. Thoreau enters, doing a comic turn. An odd narrative indeed, but a compelling one. By the last paragraph—
I'll be back, the blade whispers (a sleazy sound, cold as steel against pliant skin). In dream after dream, I'll be back.
—we too feel the knife at our throats.
And then, after this demanding beginning, what indulgences await! Stories throb with incident, erupt with personalities. The method is still fugal—themes stated and restated, time moving in circles. An episode in the present foreshadows one in the past. Characters walk modestly into and out of the action and only later flare into consequence. Motifs—a gold coin, a bicycle—appear flatly and then reappear with hyper-real intensity. Ms. Hospital is master of her technique.
“Uncle Seaborn” tells of a posthumous sibling—a boy born a few weeks after the death of his infant older brother. He feels a disastrously strong affinity for that never-known brother. A generation later their nephew yearns to be part of their lost lives. The waves call to all three. “Bondi”—it's the name of a beach; water is everywhere in Janette Hospital's world—introduces us to two young women, cousins, brought up within the same pious sect. In the beginning one is bad and one is good. Their roles don't reverse as we might expect; instead they helicly twist.
“Eggshell Expressway” brilliantly exposes the life of a fifteen-year-old prostitute hooked on angel dust. We become part of the hectic fantasies of one of her customers; we understand through expert interior monologue the girl's passion for the drug; we wince at her suffering at the hands of her pimp, cruelty that seems all the more vicious because the prostitute herself doesn't wince. In “The Last of the Hapsburgs” a spinster school teacher in the outback develops a liking for one of her students, a girl born late in life to a pair of maddened survivors of the Holocaust. The spinster teacher seems at first to be an eccentric letter-writing virgin belonging to an earlier literary tradition: a stock character, though rendered with Ms. Hospital's usual lush precision. But Lucia Davenport is not conventional; she is having a bouncy affair with the local policeman. The girl she likes is gawky, tongue-tied, embarrassed about her loony parents, unaware that she is a beauty in the making. She too seems stock. And so we are not surprised by the teacher's promise to this promising girl: “You'll win scholarships, Rebecca. To university. You'll escape from here.”
But we are brought up short by the response.
“Rebecca stopped then, turning, swaying in the haze. ‘But this is where we've escaped to,’ she said.”
Hospital's dialogue is insistent, funny, accurate. Nobody sounds like anybody else. Not a description is slack. An adulterer, just out of bed, “stumbled into the ropey noose of sheets.” A headstrong young woman waiting to have her fortune told begins to tat: “fingers flying, a cream silk streamer of crochet snaking out of her hands, twitching, growing, curling under the sofa like some live nervy creature.” A boy dives into a lake and discovers a drowned church; “he looked through the rose window and saw a phosphorescent glow, then kept plummeting to the soft Gothic arch. The nave was full of green radiance.”
In work as abundant as this there are inevitable excesses. There are punny titles (in “The Loss of Faith,” Faith is a woman), occasional portentous abstractions, and all those damned place names. These last can be slyly evocative, though; sliding from British to Aboriginal, they hint at the variety of the Continent. “People began driving out from Townsville and Ayr and Home Hill, from Charters Towers and Collinsville, and from any number of smaller salt-of-North Queensland towns: Thalanga, Mungunburra, Millaroo, Mingela.”
The author is as various as the names—a conscious artist who uses metaphor, simile, and alliteration; French and blasphemy; scripture and song.
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Armstrong, Judith. “Some Local Dantes.” Overland 147 (Winter 1997): 83-5.
A review essay including brief discussion of Oyster.
Burgin, Richard. “The Quest for the Perfect Listener.” New York Times Book Review (29 September 1991): 18.
A review of Isobars.
Callahan, David. “Becoming Different in the Work of Janette Turner Hospital.” Ariel 28, No. 2 (April, 1997): 23-34.
Callahan examines the presentation and intersection of opposing social, sexual, and cultural perspectives in Hospital's fiction. Callahan asserts that Hospital's work reveals the author's conscious effort to confront problematic aspects of “otherness” and to convey the multifaceted experience of difference and marginalization.
Ellis, Markman. “In the Back of the Outback.” Times Literary Supplement (13 September 1996): 22.
Ellis offers a positive assessment of Oyster, though notes that the novel's literary sophistication lends “a sense of self-indulgence.”
Hower, Edward. “She Lived By Theft and By Enchantment.” New York Times Book Review (13 September 1992): 15.
A review of The Last Magician.
Huggan, Graham. “Orientalism Reconfirmed?” Canadian Literature 132 (Spring 1992): 44-56.
Includes analysis of The Ivory Swing, Hospital's post-colonial Canadian perspective, and aspects of the “East-West encounter” motif in the novel.
Loewinsohn, Ron. “Daddy: Sometimes a Particle, Sometimes a Wave.” New York Times Book Review (12 March 1989): 14.
A review of Charades.
McNeil, Jean. “Witches' Brew.” Women's Review of Books X, No. 4 (January, 1993): 14.
In this review of The Last Magician, McNeil commends Hospital's sophisticated literary constructs and highly-charged prose, but concludes that the novel's intellectual and moral concerns are ill-supported by its characters.
Neild, Elizabeth. “Disjointed Lives.” Women's Review of Books VI, Nos. 10-11 (July, 1989): 34-5.
Neild provides favorable readings of Hospital's themes, characters, and narrative style in Borderlines, Dislocations, and Charades.
Peck, Dale. “Way Outback.” New York Times Book Review (22 March 1998): 11.
A review of Oyster.
Skow, John. “Lost in the Wilderness.” Time (6 April 1998): 77.
A positive review of Oyster.
Thompson, Barbara. Review of Dislocations, by Janette Turner Hospital. New York Times Book Review (25 December 1988): 9.
A review of Dislocations.
Additional coverage of Hospital's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 48; Contemporary Novelists; and Literature Resource Center.
Nancy Engbretsen Schaumburger (review date Winter 1991-92)
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SOURCE: “What Do Men Really Want?,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 2, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 18-19.
[In the following review, Schaumburger offers a positive assessment of Isobars.]
As a fervent admirer of Janette Turner Hospital's first collection of stories, Dislocations, I must reluctantly admit to a twinge of disappointment with her latest, Isobars. Perhaps it is because of the author's—as yet—unsure handling of the elements some reviewers have likened to magic realism, but that seems to me more akin to the metaphysical twists in Muriel Spark's fiction. Yet, Hospital deserves commendation for embarking on such a complex, promising artistic experiment, even if it does not always succeed.
Isobars are imaginary lines on a weather map connecting places of equal barometric pressure. Similarly, all of Hospital's characters are torn between past and present, between their Australian homeland and long-ago relationships that they have postponed resolving and their location now (often cities in the United States and Canada). In short, they exist between the connections or, to put it another way, they are all haunted (sometimes literally).
The grim title story is a “fugue” on many memories—from Thoreau's to a five-year-old girl's—about grieving mothers, drowned children, murdered women, raped women. “Isobars” suggests that we must choose between safe indifference to the persistent violence of men against women and children or “march to a different drummer” and pay the price of involvement, possibly death. All the characters are surrounded by primal bodies of water from Walden Pond to the Pacific Ocean. These watery depths and uneasy memories reinforce Hospital's theme that human things change with geologic slowness, if at all.
One of her most teasing, effective stories, “A Little Night Music,” concerns a white-knuckled flight from London to Singapore of people who are mostly originally scheduled passengers of a previous plane, blown to bits by a terrorist bomb. Lucy has taken Valium and whiskey to lessen her fear of lightning striking twice. A late-boarding male passenger sits next to her. As they listen to “Concert Above the Clouds,” they occasionally bump each other and soon fall into a brief, passionate embrace. His only communication, repeatedly, is “I'm sorry.” Lucy lapses into a terrifying dream of tunnels and the other passenger with a lantern. When she awakens, he has vanished; the stewardess never saw him. His photograph, though, is in the morning paper. He is a well-known terrorist who exploded with his victims on the missed flight. Is Lucy hallucinating or has she been on a trip to heaven and hell with a ghostly guide?
Another experiment, this one a sex farce and entirely successful, is “The Chameleon Condition.” It concerns a child-like man named Adam, whose complicated philandering leads to a nervous disease in which his whole body embarrassingly changes color from nausea green to remorseful yellow. Finally, poetic justice reduces him to desperation by means of a dream of the three women he has most disappointed cheerfully playing cards in a warm, glass-enclosed room; he stands outside, invisible to them all, despite turning feverish rainbows of color.
Another Adam, in the tragicomic “The Loss of Faith,” thinks he sees his Australian ex-wife, Faith, on a New York subway on the day she dies. The adult daughter who “forgave him least” calls with the news and, separately, they have the identical memory of a happy family day at the beach, complete with Adam smelling surf and experiencing innocence. He too dreams of a time when “not a thing has gone wrong yet.” The crux of this quirky story of paradise lost, though, is the astute, tired conclusion of the young Smith alumna whom Adam beds as he shakily confesses his sins: “The love life of male intellectuals … continues to be a quest for the perfect listener.” How true, we nod wryly, and how sad.
Men in Hospital's stories tend to be recognizable types, barbarians or babies, seeking salvation through women. “I Saw Three Ships” features an elderly, alcoholic, guilt-ridden veteran who sits on a chilly beach waiting for a mysterious, beautiful girl to make her regular appearance. In language suggestive of “Kubla Khan,” he perceives her as the angel of his redemption. Like the Smith alumna, she too listens, and she unknowingly brings grace to the veteran with her mermaid-singing on Christmas Day.
“Here and Now,” the last and best of this collection, focuses on the meeting of mutual solace between Walter, a ninety-year-old scholar, and his fifty-year-old colleague Alison, both longing for Australia at a Canadian college party. He lost a son in Australia years ago, she just lost her mother; both are grieving for a gentler, simpler time. Walter, an exceptional man with an arresting manner like that of the Ancient Mariner, tells an anecdote about the unexpected kindness of Australians in an epidemic of beached whales; they formed a bucket-brigade and kept the creatures alive with great tenderness. Alison asks when this remarkable event in his Methuselah-like life occurred, and he replies, inspired, “Here and now!” One wishes it were only so.
Hospital performs a virtuoso-like turn in this slim collection. Her work is deepening, taking risks, and often triumphing. One looks forward with pleasurable curiosity to her next effort.
Janette Turner Hospital with Missy Daniel (interview date 14 September 1992)
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SOURCE: “Janette Turner Hospital: The Australian Writer Finds Inspiration for Her Fiction in Her Own ‘Dislocated’ Life,” in Publishers Weekly, September 14, 1992, pp. 80-1.
[In the following interview, Hospital discusses The Last Magician and the influence of place and personal experience on her fiction.]
Janette Turner Hospital is, simply put, a natural Scheherazade.
It's not just that she saw in Scheherazade, who told tales to save her life, “the perfect narrative framework” for her 1989 novel Charades. It's that the primitive force of her fiction, its command of the sensuous as well as the spiritual, leads a reader of her five novels and two collections of stories to believe that she, too, is telling tales to stave something off, to “negotiate” her own life. In The Last Magician, her newest novel, published this month by Holt, Hospital explores the secrets of the Queensland rain forest as well as life in the demimonde “quarry” of Sydney, Australia, the country of her birth, and she uses a hooker who quotes Milton and a Chinese-Australian photographer who quotes Lao-Tze to tell a harsh and desperate tale about what she identifies as “the murky underside of respectability.
“Various establishment systems—the law, the academic world, the literary world—are put on trial and found severely wanting,” she says of her new novel, while sitting on the deck at her home in Kingston, Ontario. The house sits in a thickly wooded spot where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario, at the point where the magnificent Thousand Islands begin to dot the river. “But it's wider than that. I locate the quarry, a metaphor for the underside of the city, in Sydney, but I don't mean it to be specifically Sydney or even specifically Australia. It's really about the underside of Western society.”
Hospital was born in Melbourne and grew up in Brisbane. A small, blond dynamo of a woman who will turn 50 later this year, she left Australia for the U.S. in 1967 together with her husband, Cliff, a comparative religion scholar whose specialty is Sanskrit and who now teaches at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. And so began a nomadic life that has led her to Boston and Cambridge, to India, London, Los Angeles, Canada, Australia and back again. She has taught writing at MIT and Boston University as well as in Ottawa, Sydney, and Monash, and now she spends half of every year teaching at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
Hospitals first novel, The Ivory Swing, received Canada's prestigious Seal Award in 1982; it was issued here the following year. The Tiger in the Tiger Pit (1984) and Borderline (1985) confirmed her talent and her prolificity. All three were published by Dutton and reprinted by Bantam. Bantam published her fourth, Charades, in both hardcover and paperback, and Louisiana State University Press issued two volumes of stories, Dislocations (1988) and Isobars (1991).
The Last Magician is Hospital's first book with agent Molly Friedrich, and her first with Holt and editor Marian Wood, whom Hospital describes as “an immensely alert and intelligent reader. She also has an absolutely extraordinary photographic memory. I really want an editor who I feel has deep empathy with the manuscript and with me,” she explains. “When I bleed she bleeds—and it's always been ‘she’ with me. I've never had a male editor.” Her longtime Canadian editor is Ellen Seligman at McClelland and Stewart. In London it's Lynn Knight at Virago, and in Australia it's Rosanne Fitzgibbons at the University of Queensland Press. The Last Magician received keen reviews in England, and was reported to be “widely tipped” for the Booker Prize.
“The fact that I was mugged once in inner-city Boston, and then went to live in inner-city Sydney while teaching at the university there, also had a big bearing on the shape the novel took,” Hospital reveals. “I talked to male and female street prostitutes and street kids, and sat on the steps of soup kitchens for the homeless and talked to people there. The story I kept hearing again and again was that among their regular clients were people whose faces they saw in the newspapers—politicians, judges, lawyers, and cops—and that paradox fascinated me. Law keepers, the guardians of law, order and morality, consort all the time with the lawbreakers—that was what I wanted to explore.”
“The world is thick with messages, … crowded with absences,” observes Hospital, who traces both views in this novel. Many of the other themes familiar to readers of her earlier work will be found again in The Last Magician. There are people who disappear, people who are dislocated, people in transit, people who cross borders, people who can't speak. There is the potency of place, particularly the lush and wanton Australian rain forest. There are preoccupations with judgment, power, atonement, revelations, love and memory. There are old wounds, absences, secrets, silences, and open endings. We all inherit plots and then ride them like treadmills, as Hospital has written elsewhere.
But the theme of being silenced, of being without a voice, is especially powerful in the new novel. “That's always been of interest to me in my writing—to give a voice to the people who don't have one in the normal media channels or in literature. But I also felt in a rather scary way that I was writing about my own silencing, which was just engulfing me. I was writing about my own experience as an intellectual and literary figure in Australia. It certainly has to be said that Australia's not a nurturing environment either for intellectual or literary women, and in fact it often sets out to be incredibly destructive.
“I didn't think I'd be able to finish the book. I had to make little deals with myself, trick myself into finishing it. I knew there were going to be terrible penalties for saying the things I wanted to say about the hostility of authority systems. I felt that when I finished I'd probably never write again. It was the first time ever that I finished a novel and was not already in the space of the next one. But I've reached the stage now where I'm yearning to write some stories that were brewing in Australia, especially about my trips through the outback. It's a good sign.”
Hospital has written one mystery novel, A Very Proper Death, published under the pseudonym Alex Juniper by Random House in Canada and by Scribners in the U.S. But The Last Magician, she says, is also “an intricate murder mystery. The last magician is the one who out-magics all the others, who's in possession of the truth, who removes all the illusions. He's a photographer who simply monitors, records and stores things, which I think is a metaphor for the artist. He doesn't always know the significance of a photograph when he takes it, and in fact the murder is solved 20 years after it took place, from a photograph, from the retroactive significance that a viewer realizes years later.” But there's more than one murder mystery to this novel, and the solution to the second is not nearly so incontrovertible as the first.
The story's ending is genuinely ambiguous. “Right from my very first novel I have always had open endings,” Hospital acknowledges. “In Borderline I wanted to make the reader feel the real horror, the trauma of refugees who never know for sure if their loved ones are dead or alive. But it is very much the basic experience of my much-dislocated life that relationships end, and years later open again. There is no such thing as a final chord until the last final chord, until we die.”
But the opening chord of The Last Magician is emphatic. It is a clear allusion to Dante's Inferno, and so it should come as no surprise that Hospital is also a scholar of medieval literature. She says she was “electrified on multiple levels” five years ago when she saw some photographs by Sebastio Salgado in the New York Times of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil—thousands of peasant slaves swarming up and down the steep sides of a huge pit, like a vision of hell. “It seemed like a Bosch canvas, it was so arrestingly horrific. And it resonated with my inner landscape of nightmares and night terrors after being mugged. But I am also steeped in Dante, and the image of the pit immediately made me think of Botticelli's drawings of the Inferno. It was two portrayals of the same scene, one in the 15th century and one in the 20th century. It's not that I really thought it out. I just knew from the kind of humming I got in my head and the vibrations in my body that all of this had something to do with a novel. But I had no idea what, or where I was going to set it.
“Then I went off to teach in Sydney and lived on a street on the cusp between being semi-slum and being gentrified. One end was burned out, boarded up, abandoned buildings lived in by squatters and derelicts—‘derros’ in Australian slang. Kids lived in the basements and on the sidewalks. They lived in the subway station, which was tunneled into the rock cliffs in the ravines [beneath the city.] I felt I was somehow moving in the landscape of these photographs and the Botticelli drawings. By that time the ferment level in my mind was quite high. I was zipping back and forth as I constantly do when I'm in Australia, from Brisbane to Sydney and back to the rain forest, putting it all together.
“Ideas and subjects just grab me by the scruff of the neck. I get the abstract central conception of the novel first, and a vivid sense of place and locale comes early on. Then the characters, and last of all the plot. It's just something I simply discover. Once I've got my central conception, my place, my characters, I set out, and I literally don't know where I'm going. I find out when I've written the novel what's going to happen.”
In Hospital's imagined world the powerful emotions and events of childhood are often played off against those of adulthood, and The Last Magician is no exception. Asked about the moving, terrifying childhood games and taunts that enter into the narrative, Hospital confesses, “I lived opposite a cutting in the railway line both in Melbourne and in Brisbane, and we played daredevil games as kids. We used to lie on the tracks, and the boy next door always claimed that if you would lie parallel, inside them, the train could pass over you. I suppose there are certain little fragments, splinters of yourself, that do get into characters,” she allows.
“I suppose I remember the past so well because in primary school I was, by imposed necessity, a loner”—she came from an intensely conservative and fundamentalist religious family—” so you become a very acute observer. You're always trying to translate to yourself what's going on, and you play things over in your mind, trying to figure out their meaning, because it's all foreign to you, trying to learn behaviors, what other kids do. You become a very close and sharp observer. Then, too, when you're wrenched from and geographically dislocated from your past, you have an intense motivation to hang onto it, to recall it. Plus there's just loss. I miss the Queensland rain forest so much. You hang onto the images of the things you pine for.”
But Hospital is adamantly not an expatriate writer. “That's a label other people put onto you,” she says. “There's the whole issue of nationality. I'm constantly being asked to account for this—‘Do you consider yourself an Australian writer? A Canadian writer?’ I am just someone whose life has been exceedingly nomadic, but unintentionally so. I am deeply and viscerally attached particularly to Brisbane, also to this spot in Kingston, to Boston, to a village in South India—all these places leave permanent grooves in my life, and they matter to me. The countries that vilify their writers who leave, and regard it as a species of treason if you go—Australia, India, Canada, Ireland—it's a sign of postcolonial cringe. England and America, countries that have a strong enough sense of themselves, never do it and don't feel threatened, but the colonies do.”
One way to handle the pain of life, of course, is to write. “That's why it's so difficult to write,” Hospital admits. “It's so painful to reactivate the old pains; it's a risky thing to do for one's own well-being. But these things lurk. They catch you off guard, and their potency is not lessened for lying dormant. And the safest way to deal with them is in coded form, in as labyrinthine and transposed a way as possible. You try to let the pain seep away.”
For this passionately Australian writer who has shown that she has the straight-out gift for telling a story, perhaps even the silences, in the end, will speak.
Richard Eder (review date 20 September 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1313
SOURCE: “Down Underworld,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 20, 1992, pp. 3, 12.
[In the following review, Eder offers a generally favorable assessment of The Last Magician, though he finds fault in the novel's slow and disorienting start.]
To get to the Australian rain forest from downtown Brisbane, you take Ann Street, go right on George to Roma Street, and follow the northwest artery as it successively becomes Kelvin Grove Road, Enoggera Road and Samford Road. After an hour or so, “you will cross that indistinct and provisional line where the city of Greater Brisbane could perhaps be said to end, and primordial time could be said to begin.”
Thus, in this opening passage of her Gothic mystery-tale of contemporary evil [The Last Magician], Janette Turner Hospital connects the matter-of-fact everyday world with the realm of the mythic. It is as if “The Divine Comedy” started by listing the bus transfers Dante had to make to reach the middle of his life's road and the dark wood where he begins his visit to Hell.
The Last Magician refers to Dante repeatedly. In the swirling montage of images that make up its first part and color the more coherent narrative that eventually emerges, there is the recurring vision of a vortex of damnation. There are references to an old engraved illustration of the descending circles in the Inferno, and to a recent photograph of a Brazilian gold mine where the brutalized workers struggle on swaying ladders from one level to the next. Throughout, there is the central symbol of the Quarry: a metastasizing underworld of wretchedness—part realistic and part allegorical—that Hospital sets in catacombs below the sunny prosperity of Sydney, where much of the action takes place.
The author writes in a densely mannered style, and often with powerful beauty. We need the beauty because, for a long time, very little is clear. Lucy, the narrator, collapses in a London cinema when she sees an art film made by Charlie, whom she knew several years earlier in Sydney, and who suddenly disappeared. There were other disappearances, that of Lucy's lover Gabriel among them. Certain shots in the film rip open a scar of tormented memories and, beyond that, a seam of mystery and evil that goes back two generations. Lucy flies immediately to Sydney to take up the quest—the one halted by Charlie's and Gabriel's disappearance.
At first we get scrambled fragments of story and characters. There is a pervading sense of universal sickness, a piercing note of denunciation, and striking images that seem to know their places but refuse to reveal them to us. It is as if Hospital were running her own film in fast-rewind, showing everything on the screen but allowing it no pattern. The rewind is not fast enough; it takes nearly 150 pages, and by that time, a reader's intention to seek may succumb to the author's intention to hide.
What has been hidden and hinted at so demandingly, though, emerges as a story of high tension and terrifying allure. It begins as dangerous games among five children on a farm outside Brisbane 40 years ago. One of the boys, Robby Gray, is rich and cowardly; one of the girls, Cat, is dirt-poor and fearless. There is Cat's little brother, Willy, who is slow-witted and whom she fiercely protects. The other two—Catherine and Charlie—are willing captives to Cat's untamed vitality.
So is Robby, but in a sick and twisted fashion. By birth and family position, he should be king of the mountain, but he is scared of mountains. He loves Cat as the others do, but to him, love means power and possession. In a loathsome and brutal way, he exercises his power, and the innocent Willy is accidentally killed as a result. When the authorities act, Robby's family standing shields him, and Cat is sent to reform school. Her wild spirit labels her incorrigible, and pushes her to repeated efforts to escape. Finally, it leads her to take to the streets as a prostitute; to disappear—in the book's thematic image—into the Quarry.
Robby grows up to become Robertson Gray; sleek, assured, a judge, and a powerful member of the Establishment in Sydney. Catherine and Charlie, haunted by the memory of Cat and of what was done to her, grow up trying to come to terms with what they know. They become lovers, then split up and go abroad. She returns from London after a few years and becomes a prominent TV interviewer. He stays in New York as a photographer. Photography provides The Last Magician with one of its major themes and with the engine of its plot. The ability of the camera to catch what even the photographer doesn't know is there—“to let me see what I have seen,” as Charlie puts it—instill in him the conviction that he can recover the past and bring Gray to account.
Charlie returns to Sydney in the late 1980s, 25 years after he left it. His quest is soon joined by Gabriel, Gray's estranged son. Lucy, Gabriel's lover, becomes their witness and the book's narrator. The quest is for Cat—there are some shadowy suggestions that she may be working the Sydney underworld—but it becomes something much broader.
Hospital's theme is corruption; specifically, the corruption of power. It is a power that, under the pretext of order and social necessity, maintains itself comfortably on top of a cesspool. When necessary, it will use any violent means to secure itself. Gray personifies the corruption as he has since childhood. He is on top and Cat is in the Quarry.
Or, as it turns out, not. Before the book ends, in a pattern suggesting the downward spirals of Dantean Hell, we read of other crimes. When Gray is in his 30s, Cat gets on a trolley car he is riding with his first wife and little Gabriel. That night, Gray comes home all bloody; the next day, he leaves his wife. Years later, the bones of a young woman, scored by stab marks, are found wedged under a rock in the rapids where Gray, Cat and the others once played. Charlie's and Gabriel's disappearance follows warnings that prominent people in Sydney want them to stop their quest. And when Lucy, who had fled, returns to Sydney to take up this quest once more, she finds a photograph that seems to link Gray to the vanishings.
Hospital wields her story and characters with the larger-than-life bravura of an Expressionist allegory. Everything is deliberately too much. Both Gabriel and Lucy represent a younger generation determined to breach the gulf between privilege and the Quarry. Gabriel—not very convincingly—has become a muckraking investigator of his father's world even before Charlie conveniently finds him. Lucy, even less convincingly, was a brilliant student, and when Charlie meets her, she is having a postgraduate cultural and social experience by working in a high-society brothel. She mixes raunchy street talk with quotations from Milton.
Gray is loathsome all the way through. Even his cuff links and the way he eats oysters at fashionable dinner parties are loathsome. His third wife—a deconstructionist feminist who is mean to the hired help; I expect Hospital is settling scores—matches him.
Hospital's magnifications and simplifications can be jarring, even silly, particularly before we get some hold on the outsized story her outsized methods are revealing. Yet even at her most arbitrary, the author is never careless or coarse. Her writing has perfect pitch; at its wildest, it retains a golden refinement. So do her themes, for all their odd twists. She takes many risks and most of them work; the one that doesn't is our long wandering through the dark wood of her initial montage, and the long time it may take us before we can trust her there. Good she is, but she's not Virgil.
Jonathan Coe (review date 24 September 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646
SOURCE: “Syndey's Inferno,” in London Review of Books, September 24, 1992, p. 22.
[In the following review of The Last Magician, Coe finds fault in the novel's unconvincing narrator and gratuitous literary allusions.]
Mess is one of the distinguishing features of Janette Turner Hospital's writing, but also one of its abiding themes: and part of the reader's difficulty has always been to decide how much of the mess is intention, and how much miscalculation. The characters in Borderline, her 1985 novel which has many formal similarities with The Last Magician (including an obsession with Dante), are all engaged in transgressing boundaries, whether willingly or not, and the title story of her collection Isobars makes explicit its preoccupation with ‘ideas of order’ imposed upon a messy and shifting reality. Lines drawn on a map, she wrote in that story, are ‘talismanic’ and represent ‘the magical thinking of quantitative and rational people’. Her latest novel gives this notion an urgent political twist, by supposing that the ‘ideas of order’ entertained by our governing classes are equally talismanic, and that their regulating power is in fact just as illusory as the power of isobars to make sense of ‘the sloshing flood of time and space’. From the perspective of a smart garden party overlooking Sydney harbour, the line separating order (of which Hospital disapproves, because it's authoritarian) from chaos (of which she approves, because it's human) is called sharply into question: ‘Where else,’ her narrator asks, ‘is the membrane between manicured lawn and quarry so wafer thin?’ The ‘quarry’ referred to here is a nightmarish warren into which Sydney's underclass has been driven: Hospital likes to describe it in terms of Dante's hellish circles, its outer regions consisting of seedy pubs and bars, its innermost recesses taking the form of hideaways beneath railway tunnels and tube lines. Somewhere inside this labyrinth there is a woman called Cat, and the search to find her keeps the plot's engine ticking over, although the narrator is certainly in no hurry to let us know why it should be so important. Eventually we learn of a childhood trauma. A quartet of friends indulge in a dangerous game which goes tragically wrong. When the blame is laid, unjustly, on Cat, she is sent away to reform school and from that day onward can never be persuaded to speak. One of the participants and chief witnesses to the injustice, a young prig called Robinson Gray, keeps quiet about his part in it and grows up to be a distinguished judge even while the secret continues to burn away inside him. The other two children, one called (confusingly) Catherine and the other a Chinese Australian by the name of Charlie Chang, spend the rest of their horrified lives trying to make contact with Cat, tracing her fleeting appearances through strip joints, prisons and police files in Sydney and Brisbane.
Chang finally makes a career out of photography—which makes him the ‘last magician’ of the title—and his photographs become one of the key devices through which the narrative gets filtered. Their quizzical, open-eyed, receptive viewpoint is the one which the book clearly endorses, and an implicit contrast is set up with Robinson Gray's sinister, furtive power-mongering. One flashback to their school debating society finds them on opposite sides. The subject is ‘Triage’ (which is the bête noire of the whole novel)—the theory that ‘in times of crisis or natural disaster, it is legitimate, in the interests of a stable society, and for the greater good of the majority, for the authorities to establish a system of priorities; that is, it is legitimate to ask, If all cannot be saved, who then should be saved?’ Gray proposes the motion, Chang opposes it, and the headmaster judges Gray the winner for successfully arguing that ‘the ability to be intelligently “cruel” when the occasion demands is the hallmark of enduring civilisations.’ This is a bald statement of the attitude The Last Magician sets out to rail against, and which it shows to be fixed in the psyche of the power-hungry as immovably as the rituals of a children's game.
The novel's polemic, then, is loud and forthright: but there's a good deal of apparatus to dismantle before we can arrive at it. The narrator of these events is Lucy, a call-girl turned TV researcher, who is a generation younger than the traumatised quartet but becomes a close friend of both Charlie and Catherine, as well as having an affair with Robinson Gray's son, Gabriel. This makes for a peculiar narrative perspective: at once distanced from the action by the intervention of a third person, we are also brought uncomfortably close to it by virtue of her intense emotional involvement. Hospital used this effect in Borderline, where the narrator was a piano tuner called Jean-Marc whose life only occasionally intersected with those of the protagonists. The problem with such an approach is that it makes enormous demands on the character in question: the voice and the range of sympathies must be much more than usually flexible. And in some ways Lucy fits the bill. She's a one-time private schoolgirl who sheds her snobbish attitudes following a youthful encounter at a railway station with another girl who spits at her for being a ‘prissy little fancy-pants cunt’. The ease with which she discards her former identity derives from her gift for ‘shapeshifting’ (‘from time to time, I find myself inside the skin of other people’), and we get a graphic illustration of this when, on the same day and the same railway platform, a middle-aged woman exposes herself to the assembled crowd and Lucy suddenly finds that she identifies with her vividly, so that ‘through some unimaginable, unconscionable error, she is exposed, without underwear, to a mob’.
Despite all the hard work she has put into giving her a plausible history, though, Hospital continues to ask too much of her narrator. Doubts about Lucy arise quite early in the novel, when she takes a ferry across the harbour to Manly and finds herself being chatted up by a sleazeball. Her peppering of the subsequent conversation with literary and artistic references may, I suppose, be a ploy to deter his advances: more likely, it's the author's way of smuggling in the allusive baggage which she feels (mistakenly) will give the novel resonance. These awkwardly colloquial manoeuvrings (‘You ever read the Russian novelists?’ ‘You heard of Titian?’) do nothing except guarantee the sacrifice of credibility on the altar of a pointless intertextuality. Lucy describes herself, at one point, as having ‘an inconveniently busy and sceptical mind’. But this is disingenuous, because the busy-ness of her mind is nothing if not convenient for the author, enabling her to drop in those all-important gestures towards Dante (‘You know what else it reminds me of? … Dante's Inferno. The Botticelli drawings. Have you seen them?’), and even a few references to art movies—always thrown off, of course, with the same note of assumed vagueness (‘like one of those European movies … something by that Italian director', ‘like someone in a mournful intellectual movie … one of those slow bleak things by that Japanese bloke’). By turning her into such a compulsive name-dropper, Hospital makes it increasingly difficult for us to believe in Lucy's stated preference for low-life company over Sydney's literati. In the scene at the posh garden party she makes a beeline for the barman, saying that ‘I do feel at home with the people who tap off beer and dole out icecubes for the cocktail crowd’: but why should this be, if what she really wants to talk about is Browning and De Sica? By now we might well feel that Lucy's shape-shifting, her chameleonic crossing of borders, is essentially a function of the various uses which the author intends to put her to, so that the decision to interpose her between the reader and some of the novel's most significant events can only dilute their impact.
Luckily this is not a fatal flaw, since the most powerful passages in the book—the scenes describing the all-important childhood incident—are presented without too much of Lucy's mediating presence. Hospital seems a little nervous that these passages are going to strike people as lurid, because she allows herself some moments of overt self-justification in which she makes sarcastic calls for a literature of ‘modesty and social decorum … a literature that is unassertive, limpid, economical and lean’ (all of which The Last Magician is most certainly not). Such tactics are still considered tricksy and newfangled by some readers (and critics), who perhaps forget that the privilege of authorial self-criticism dates back at least to the introductory chapters of Tom Jones. In Hospital's case, they are, all the same, unnecessary: few novelists have written with such authority about childish passions and the influence they carry over into what passes for adulthood. It isn't only the reader's relief at being allowed to bask in the waters of realism after the necessary thorniness of the earlier sections: more importantly, Hospital's imagination takes fire at this point, and the descriptions of Cat, Charlie, Robinson and Catherine as they pass from idyllic play at Cedar Creek Falls to disaster and recrimination are filled—as befits a novel of this title—with a dark and terrible magic. Other affecting touches are less insistently signalled, such as the unobtrusively devastating moment when the six-year-old Gabriel realises the depth of contempt his father feels for his mother, as he watches him cutting in on a newspaper reporter to save him the wasted effort of seeking his wife's opinion on anything. The leaps of sympathy which Hospital performs at times like this make her more overtly adventurous techniques seem laboured: it's ironic, really, that they should turn out to be the most memorable features of a novel which professes such vigorous disdain for ‘modest late 20th-century social realism’.
Diane Turbide (review date 5 October 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 765
SOURCE: “Circles of Hell,” in Macleans, October 5, 1992, p. 66.
[In the following review, Turbide offers a positive assessment of The Last Magician.]
When Janette Turner Hospital described her new novel to an audience of booksellers in Toronto in July, she linked her dense, lush writing style to the rain forest in Queensland, Australia, where she grew up. “The rain forest is nature at its most baroque,” said the internationally acclaimed writer, 50, now based in Kingston, Ont. “My prose reflects that.” As in much of her earlier work, Hospital's fifth and most ambitious novel, The Last Magician, possesses a narrative as twisting and tangled as jungle undergrowth. Part mystery, part philosophical exploration, it tells an intricate tale of sexual obsession, corruption and murder. But its essence is an emotionally charged meditation on loss and absence, on time and memory, on the head's ability to deny what the heart knows. Lucy, the book's main narrator, struggles to make sense of old, unresolved traumas, trying, writes the author, “to salvage the future and predict the changeable past.”
The Last Magician extends some of the concerns that have marked Hospital's prize-winning earlier works. Her four previous novels and two short-story collections are packed with imagery of black holes, borders and chasms—danger spots on the psychological or physical terrain. Her characters are sensitive people living on the edge. They are often rootless, straddling respectable society and a symbiotically linked netherworld of violence.
In The Last Magician, Hospital takes those ideas to a new and richly satisfying level. At the heart of the story is a horrifying childhood death that took place decades ago and continues to haunt four people. One of them is Charlie Chang, a Chinese-Australian photographer and experimental film-maker through whose eyes the death is re-enacted. In the past, he is among a group of children who play a dangerous game of chicken on railway tracks. The most recklessly brave is Cat, a tomboyish waif from the wrong side of town whose independent spirit fascinates and disturbs the others. “The trouble with Cat's kind of power is that there are people who develop a passion to break it,” observes Charlie, who worships her. The ones who try to break her are private-school boys, including Robinson Gray, who both loves and fears Cat. One day, the railway game goes too far, and tragedy follows.
In a masterful scene that depicts how the wheels of society run roughshod over the powerless, the authorities find Cat responsible while the real perpetrators escape. She is sent to reform school, an event that begins a long cycle of imprisonment, escape and self-destruction as a stripper and prostitute. The others lose track of her. Charlie flees to New York City, while Robinson marries, has a son, Gabriel, and becomes a respected judge.
It is Gabriel and his lover, Lucy, the prostitute-narrator, who set things in motion again. Gabriel is on his own quest to find Cat; an accidental meeting on a streetcar between his parents and Cat when he was six changed his life irrevocably. “The riddle kept eating him,” Hospital writes of Gabriel's confusion about Cat's role. “He was ravenous.”
Eventually, Gabriel and Charlie collaborate to find Cat. Their search takes them to the quarry, an underground system of caves and tunnels near Sydney, which has been claimed by squatters, pimps, prostitutes and drug addicts—and which Hospital compares to Dante's Inferno. And by linking it to the city's establishment—especially the lawyers, judges, and policemen who frequent it as customers—Hospital creates an unforgettable image of the pervasiveness of violence and the equally strong desire to ignore it. “The quarry is leaking into the city, and the city is seeping quarrywards,” she writes. “Everyone knows this, but everyone denies it.”
Hospital pushes at the borders of conventional narrative, retracing the same ground from different points of view and superimposing new layers of interpretation. Her technique is close to Charlie's photographic method, which she describes as “mutational collage.” Charlie's photos, which Lucy deconstructs in detail, ultimately provide the clues to what happened to Cat. When Lucy asks the powerfully intuitive Charlie, the magician of the title, why he takes so many pictures, he responds, “So that I will see what I have seen.” His enigmatic explanation suggests that things the conscious mind suppresses are important.
Richly allusive, The Last Magician's plot sometimes threatens to disappear amid all the literary sleight of hand. But the sensuousness of the prose—and the unforgettable image of the quarry—more than compensate. Hospital's new book provides ample evidence that she has some impressive tricks up her sleeve.
Louis K. MacKendrick (review date Winter 1992-93)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1725
SOURCE: “Clever By Far,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 48, Winter, 1992-93, pp. 55-9.
[In the following review, MacKendrick provides an analysis of the characters and themes in Isobars, concluding that the volume is “a distinctive, accomplished, and completely engaging collection.”]
The great majority of the 18 stories in Janette Turner Hospital's Isobars have an Australian setting. Those few with a North American locale seem more predictable and even lugubrious; they are flatter in style and more linear, altogether less apt to fracture time and voice in their narration. In short, they are less lyric in manner, less playful—for most of those stories of the Land Down Under have their own particular lightness of being and even, if the word is not cross-examined, luminosity. They range from the conventional to the refreshingly peculiar, from the sombre to the transcendental. Many are singularly stylish. A pallid recital of plot elements would be a self-defeating exercise, given Hospital's cheerful, even cheeky predilection for employing narrative and temporal slips and dislocations in her story lines: the classical unities are sometimes observed only in their complete breach. A quick perusal, then, of some of Isobars's interesting and attractive features.
The title story, subtitled “A Fugue on Memory,” initially links meteorological plotting with its imaginative/creative counterpart. This is a kind of punning wit that Hospital frequently manifests, even indulges, in this collection. The story's events are linked by bodies of water, as one action is perceived and interpreted from differing viewpoints at different times. Furthermore, actions and times are conflated, for “An isobar is an imaginary line connecting places of equal pressure on a map” (33). This is a remarkable fiction, as much for its technique as for its arresting content: the words brutal, subtle, insidious, murderous, suggestive, sly, rationalizing, and obscure would not be out of place in any attempt to describe the feeling, the manner, and the narrative of this story. More directly, and more figuratively, at times some of these stories seem to echo particular techniques, or characters, or situations, along varying lines of narrative pressure: they employ what E. M. Forster described as “rhythm” in his Aspects of the Novel (1927)—repetition plus variation.
The collection opens with “The Mango Tree,” one of a clutch of stories dealing with sometimes eccentric family relationships. The story has a not completely comfortable focus on the religious beliefs of the narrator's family, and on the narrator's separation from his family's religious insistence in his secular world. He has recognized “the kind of holy innocence that can inflict appalling damage” (11), and the coexistent polarities of anger and love are richly evident. This is not a typical Hospital fiction, for she does not often write the same story. There may be repeated situations, modes, characters, relationships, and even peculiarities of style, but these exist in a usually satisfactory number of permutations and combinations. This said, “The Second Coming of Come-by-Chance,” a story filled with mock-religious terminology, is about a formerly drowned town that resurfaces in a drought, preceded by the reappearance of the Anglican church. However, there are gaps in the sequence of events, or in what appear to be events—was there a rape, and, if so, was it committed by aborigines or policemen? Even the title contains a deliberate pun on its carnal and religious connotations. The narrative perspective begins in irony, or with cheerily offhand and contrary humour; thereafter it veers to the fantastical, and then into pathos and darker imaginings, only to end with the superior and dismissive tone of a journalistic editorial.
Other family stories include “Morgan Morgan,” about a narrator's extravagant Welsh grandfather who comes to stand for the truths contained in fabrications, fictions, and wishes. “Bondi” looks at two female cousins, one a free-spirited, touchingly “bad” girl—restless, daring, provocative. But the story has one moment of delicious comedy, an affray on a beach described in exaggeratedly epical and quasi-medieval terms—this in a narrative that ends soberly with heavy implications about the loss of innocence (not necessarily in youth) and the intrusion of the world's hedonistic ugliness. In “The Bloody Past, The Wandering Future” a family's particular themes, its adherences, are traced through several generations: this appears to be one of Hospital's favourite narrative strategies. In “Uncle Seaborn,” we are told that “the past conferred meaning” (61): the theme is another relative constant in such family fictions. Here, however, we are given a practical demonstration of it. It is not a lip-service theme, an abstraction at the centre—Hospital's stories are usually too unsettled, unsettling, kinetic, mobile, to permit such settlement and convenience. This story also belongs to several generations: it portrays the family's sustaining, life-and-death relationship with the sea, with one of their dead, and with their inherited treasures. Here, too, are touches of the mystical or, more properly, the supernatural—not an unfamiliar element in Isobars.
“A Little Night Music” is a completely conventional ghost story about terrorism and an airline disaster. However, due to Hospital's custom of ranging from the traditional to the eccentric within an identifiable type of story, “Eggshell Expressway” is passing strange. It, too, is a ghost story, but one with a strongly sexual component and a compelling cast: an addicted teenaged hooker, her pimp, a dead and obsessed judge. To these dramatis personae Hospital adds puns (“Lisa who wears her habit like a nun” ); a wonderfully explicit and beautifully comic scene of fellation; sadistic lashings; other raw and brutal details; and a compelling description of a black, hedonistic, irresistible pit of desire, satisfaction, and suicide, to create a story that holds many pleasures and horrid delights.
A ghost also appears at the outset of “The Loss of Faith.” The author's impulse here would seem to have been sheerly parabolic, though the fictional license is not necessarily exercised. Adam's first wife, Faith, dies, but she is not the only woman in his life: the light and meaningless part of the story is his compulsive recitation to a waitress he has picked up. This is in dramatic contrast to an earlier scene, in which Adam, Faith, and their daughter (who will later, as an adult, feel hostility toward her father) spend their time together on a beach, a scene that is stunning in its pastoral niceness. The story has a curious mixture of pathos and puns, as well as sentimentality and manifestations of revenge. Adam's Marist education means that “the world was always thick with symbol” (162), symbol that the reader, through Adam, will perceive, if he or she is willing to accept the author's prompting. The story is confused, or intruded upon, by the narrative point of view; there are temporal slips; there is a great deal of structural equilibrium beneath its deceptive, less-than-innocent narrative surface.
Elsewhere, a fantasy is balanced by its denial. “The Chameleon Condition” is a curious alloy of reality and dream, or nightmare. Its male protagonist changes colours. He is Adam; his current lover, preceded by two wives, is Eve; he is reactionary, isolated, and, even in his dream, excluded. The story has elements of parable about it, and metaphorical and hallucinatory associations. Its serious matter dwells uneasily with its initial, basically comic premise: in the throes of moonlit sexual delight, “His legs were bright blue with gratification. Blue as a peacock's feather. Blue as Krishna when the milkmaids licked him with their thousand tongues” (114). In contrast, in “The Last of the Hapsburgs” an old-maidish, unsatisfied schoolteacher, who appears sly and superior in the letters she writes to her sister, is dramatically and rudely disabused of the romantic fantasies and fictions she creates about several of her pupils. In effect, she is temporarily exposed and privately punished for escaping her own inhibitions. The story is suffused with patronizing, and later uncompromisingly vulgar, ironies.
It may not be completely apparent that some of Hospital's stories—those that generally seem to take few if any liberties with narrative arrangement—centre on preoccupied, obsessed, or compulsive characters. In “Dear Amnesty,” a woman graphically takes on what she imagines to be the physical suffering of the victim she adopts; she cannot relinquish this identification, nor can she keep herself from writing letters to Amnesty International. In “Queen of Pentacles, Nine of Swords,” a mordant and cynical Native woman is seemingly compelled by her baser nature. She holds no illusions about her social and economic position as an outsider, and believes her life to be predetermined by tarot-card readings. She is ruled by reason and superstition, and is as much drawn to aggressive overachievement and dramatic upward mobility as she is to prostitution. This woman is an intriguingly contradictory individual; her story is, in the favourable sense of the word, compelling.
“I Saw Three Ships,” the final story in the collection, traces a delightful seaboard May-December platonic romance. Old Gabe, chiding himself for his foolishness, thinks the girl he meets on the beach “belonged in a different dimension” (91). Hospital makes an excellent analogy here: Gabe “hobbled to meet her like a broken toy, overwound” (90). The teenaged enchantress, who seems to have an obsessive concern for the enraptured oldster, is named, appropriately, Angela, and she heals the guilt Gabe feels about the conflict between his aged condition and his new romantic foolishness. She gives meaning to his solitary existence, and he thinks only about her mystery and radiance. The story—set in a practical world of pain, a world that occasionally shows traces of enchantment—is of a visitation; it is singularly touching, and again demonstrates Hospital's versatility.
Many of the stories in Isobars possess a great deal of self-conscious charm, sometimes to the extent that they become self-conscious performances. Reading them, we can often sense and appreciate the author's winsomeness, her consciousness of stylistic preening, and the careful lusciousness of her images. There is a cleverness in Hospital's arrangements, and often a sophisticated wittiness, even a delight, in her narrative tone. We acknowledge that the trick is smoothly and inoffensively turned. Hospital's work is sprightly, assured, coherent, and controlled: there are no apparent lapses in voice, or tone, or perspective, or intensity. These stories deliver the persuasive illusion of casual and familiar confidence, as their voices move comfortably within their narrative boundaries. Characters are economically drawn and wonderfully human—quite an achievement given Hospital's narrative riffs and sometimes eccentric associations. In short, Isobars is a distinctive, accomplished, and completely engaging collection.
Erin McGraw (review date Winter 1993)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152
SOURCE: “Styles and Variations,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 802-13.
[In the following excerpt, McGraw comments on trends in prose style in recent fiction and offers positive assessment of Isobars.]
Those who live by a highly developed and elaborated style die by that same style. Recent fiction has begun to reassert an interest in style—that is, in storytelling in such a way that the reader is aware of method as well as material—but it's a thin line that separates a style exercised to its full potential from one that is pushed over the edge into parody. (Of this, there are few better examples than late Hemingway.) A writer who is concerned with particular devices and writerly tics spends a lot of time fretting. Is this one simile too many? Is this the parenthetical aside, the footnote, or the interior monologue that will finally capsize credibility or exhaust the reader's patience? Fiction that moves away from or exaggerates conventional idioms is fiction with a curl in the middle of its forehead—when it's good it's very good, and when it's bad it's horrid. Whether a particular set of narrative devices is as ornamented as William Goyen's or as stripped down as Donald Barthelme's, as soon as those devices stop enhancing the story's movement they start impeding it and irritating the reader. But when a highly developed style is carried off, it's exciting to read, a bravura performance: the writing shimmies across tightropes to the delight of the audience, who didn't think it could be done.
Writers and publishers have moved past the short-declarative-sentence lockstep that characterized most of the eighties, and attention to well-crafted, highly individuated voices has become modish. Fiction's house these days is roomy enough to contain the lapidary prose of Michael Chabon or the baroque barrages of Martin Amis, right next door to Toni Morrison's fierce lyricism, Alice Munro's disciplined meditations, and T. C. Boyle's gonzo lit. …
Janette Turner Hospital's prose is as luxurious and flamboyant as a peacock. It is self-consciously gorgeous, and its use of repeated rhythms and piled-up dependent clauses can have the soothing, near-mesmerizing quality of a chant. Hospital's style reflects her content, since her stories return again and again to issues of otherworldliness—the half-heard echoes of ancestors, or mysterious forces that tie her characters to strangers and ram their fates together. Because the call of the emerging voices of memory and guilt rises so high, her characters have to fight all the time to keep a grip on the everyday.
To give bulk and credence to her vision, which could so easily degenerate into third-rate, woozy mysticism—half-digested Jung mated with Picnic at Hanging Rock—Hospital's narrative prose is exotic and inflated, full of unlikely couplings. “Before the avocadoes and kiwi fruit and mangoes, back in the time of the sugarcane, Wednesday afternoons used to roll in with a dreadful humid regularity,” she writes in “The Last of the Hapsburgs,” the second story in her fine collection, Isobars. The sentence begins with a figure that recalls myth and fairy tale (“Before the avocadoes … back in the time …”), but the interesting element here is that the sense of mythic proportion is not dispelled when we come to the humor of those dreadful, humid, regular Wednesdays. The narrator is allowing some wit, but the language is still slightly formal, not out of keeping with the kiwis.
Instead of propping up showy language in order to knock it down, as [Dev] Hathaway does by revealing such lushness to be disproportionate and comic, Hospital's world is stubbornly mythic, and style helps to create it. One character muses about “gryphons rampant and fields azure blooming in her waking thoughts”; another, in his cups, “sucks in his cheeks and pinches his lips to show contempt for these words falling out like junk from an overstuffed closet.” Such thoughts aspire to a noble level that has little to do with common conversation.
Hospital doesn't content herself with lofty diction or idiosyncratic descriptions to pull us in. Paragraphs spelunk into the psyches of her characters and bring up fragments of buried history, one shard at a time. But plunging into the headlong lives of characters can be frustrating; readers have to trust that it will all make sense eventually. In “Uncle Seaborn” a man sifts through his parents' effects, then telephones his family on another continent:
“We miss you,” his wife and children said. “We love you.”
“I can't hear you,” he panicked. The surf of static again, the whispering, hissing, wave-washing, word-washing, the line going dead. The tyranny of distance, he thought. The ocean wins every time.
In the next drawer he found Uncle Seaborn's gold half-sovereign and felt elation, then fear, then elation.
Or, from “Eggshell Expressway”:
“A tawdry set-up.” He's weeping now. “Taking advantage. Meanwhile the real marksmen (who knows how many?) are everywhere: the toll booth, Circular Quay, the Law Courts, every doorway in King's Cross, the expressway underpass, oh yes, the underpass, that surprises you, doesn't it? You'd be sick at what goes on in that labyrinth, that slime-pit, that sewer-maze, that— … They got him,” he moans. “They got him.” He sees the skull burst like an eggshell, blood all over the expressway.
The dropped hints, the inferences, the unexpected violence and circularity—all of these devices are employed to tease readers along. The stories move in circles, and the questions posed are not the standard ones of narrative—What's going to happen next?—but instead the questions of psychology: Why does she keep bringing that up? What does the underpass have to do with anything?
Hospital works out a tricky balance, burying traditional, causal narrative underneath obliqueness and allusion. The balance can slip and become coy (in “Eggshell Expressway” and in “Dear Amnesty,” an uncharacteristically predictable tale in which the body of a devoted Amnesty International letter-writer takes on the suffering of the woman she's hoping to free), or never quite break forward into clarity (“Isobars”). Given how much of her material inclines toward the fey, however, Hospital uses style as a means to supply greater credence to the compulsions and illusions that rule her characters.
Her best stories—“The Last of the Hapsburgs,” “The Second Coming of Come-by-Chance,” “Queen of Pentacles, Nine of Swords”—are wonderful, thick and exotic. They create a world filled with doors that open onto other doors, where several versions of the truth are likely and the boundaries that fence off surreality break down. It's a testimony to Hospital's authority that after reading this book filled with infidelity, violence, and tormented sex of various sorts—three stories out of fifteen have to do with prostitutes, two are about rape, and “The Last of the Hapsburgs” ends with an act of filthy violation by a group of boys toward their aging female teacher and two girl students—a reader can come away thinking about the author's language.
Nancy Engbretsen Schaumburger (review date Spring 1993)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614
SOURCE: “Rich and Strange,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring, 1993, p. 8.
[In the following review, Schaumburger praises the intellectual rewards of The Last Magician but finds shortcomings in the novel's expansive range and underdeveloped characters.]
The heroine of Janette Turner Hospital's novel Charades (1989) is told that she has a first-class “grab-bag mind,” full of arcane, unrelated, brain-teasing oddments of information. If you, too, delight in such intellectual quirkiness, you will applaud this Australian-born writer's latest effort, The Last Magician. Highly innovative and daring, this sensuous novel is bursting with images and ideas both rich and strange.
Most of its characters—or at least the seekers among them—seem to be walking almanacs of curious lore. They are obsessed with the case of a most significant person missing from their lives, who has probably been murdered. The detective elements in the plot do not appear by accident; Hospital is also the author of a successful crime thriller, A Very Proper Death, under the charming pseudonym of Alex Juniper.
Charlie Chang, as the Australian-Chinese hero of this title calls himself, is a photographer and filmmaker of tricky, disturbing symbolic effects. He is also the manager of a posh Sydney restaurant/whorehouse aptly named the Inferno, which employs Lucy/Lucia, the narrator, a Milton-quoting prostitute who has made a different “choice in cages,” a temporary detour from the normal world, to acquire the forbidden knowledge of the “secret cupboard under the stairs.” Catharine, a TV documentary interviewer, and Robbie, a high-ranking judge, often dine there; Catharine eventually interviews Lucy and hires her as an assistant, while Robbie periodically slips off from his current wife to the perverted world upstairs.
Charlie, Catharine, and Robbie share a dark childhood secret: their wild Queensland friend, Cat, who lured them all into dangerous games on the railroad tracks, finally became a victim herself. Robbie first prevented Cat from saving her retarded brother from an oncoming train, then told the sheriff (while Charlie and Catharine remained silent) that Cat had caused the boy's death. As a result, Cat entered a downward path from reform school to prostitution, prison, and occasional demonic reappearances in her old chums’ lives.
Charlie joins forces with Gabriel, Robbie's estranged drifter son, who works at the Inferno, to track down the long-missing Cat; they are convinced that she holds the key to several unresolved dilemmas of identity and culpability. In their quest for clues, they descend nightly into the Quarry, the criminal underbelly of Sydney.
The Quarry becomes the leading symbol of the novel: teeming subterranean dope dens and other Bosch-like scenes of horror that sometimes extend as far as the earth below suburban gardens. Visitors include not only the desperate and the damned, but also the haunted, like Charlie and Gabriel, and even such ultrarespectable figures on the evening news as Judge Robinson “Robbie” Gray. Charlie and Gabriel appear to die in a knife fight. And it remains for Lucy to assemble the crucial bits of information necessary to solve the murder(s). Lucy and Catharine remain the sole survivors of the far-reaching consequences of Cat's fateful childhood.
This ambitious novel weighs the consequences of crime and punishment, memory and remorse, collective guilt, and other societal issues. The novel's scope is immense, perhaps one reason why it falters. Ultimately, a novelist must convince the reader that her characters are real. We must learn to care about them. In this feat Hospital falls short. Despite this, there are many intellectual pleasures in The Last Magician, so indulge yourself and look forward to this prolific author's next offering.
One quibble: The Last Magician is ill-served by the murky, almost pornographic cover art, which I hope Hospital's publishers will replace.
Times Literary Supplement (review date 29 October 1993)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338
SOURCE: A review of The Ivory Swing, in Times Literary Supplement, October 29, 1993, p. 22.
[In the following review, the critic offers a favorable assessment of The Ivory Swing.]
Readers who enjoyed Janette Turner Hospital's most recent novel, The Last Magician (1992), will take delight in The Ivory Swing, which was originally published in 1982. It tells the story of Juliet, an academic's wife who with her family is transplanted from the stultifying small-town atmosphere of a provincial Canadian university to the isolation of a South Indian village. Living for a year on the estates of Shivaraman Nair, a wealthy farmer and ostentatious patron of the arts, Juliet, her husband David and their two children are expected to acknowledge and respect the strictures of the high-caste household.
For Juliet, already half-inclined to rebellion by the frustrations of her domestic life, the situation proves intolerable. It is further complicated by the family's involvement with Yashoda, a widowed relative of the Nairs, who also occupies a house on the estates. Half-westernized by travel and education, Yashoda refuses to follow the requirements of her dharma, the seclusion proper to widowhood. She seeks freedom, comfort and, ultimately, protection from David and Juliet, who discover that their easy liberalism is inadequate to deal with the moral and emotional complexities of orthodoxy. Juliet is unable to view Yashoda's position dispassionately because of her own impulse to identify with the trapped and the oppressed; in making this connection, she comes to realize how much freedom she has, but how ambivalently she regards it. For David, Yashoda represents an appeal to his sexuality and masculinity that he can neither reject nor understand.
The story is worked out with extraordinary delicacy and precision, never scoring easy hits and always demanding our interpretive effort. In particular, the relationship between Juliet and the child servant Prabhakaran provides an elegant and moving demonstration of the paradoxes of liberty and imprisonment. By focusing on the specific, Turner Hospital invests it with great depth, and creates a drama that delivers much that is important and universal.
Ray Willbands (review date Winter 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
SOURCE: A review of The Last Magician, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter 1994, pp. 209–10.
[In the following review, Willbands offers a positive assessment of The Last Magician.]
Janette Turner Hospital's seventh work of fiction [The Last Magician] is set in Brisbane, at the edge of the Queensland rain forest, in Sydney, and briefly in New York. It is a very contemporary pondering of the nature of reality, time, disorder, and power, with a repeated reference to chaos theory and the possibility of falling through cracks in to a parallel universe, a dark reality of underworld horror.
The novel concerns two generations, with Cat, Catherine, Charlie, and Robbie in the first, and Robbie's son Gabriel and his girlfriend, the narrator Lucy, in the second. The first generation grows up in Brisbane, attending school, playing “chicken” on railroad tracks, swimming nude in a rain-forest waterfall pool. Cat, part heroine, part Circe, is a willful, mesmerizing girl from the lower class who is catapulted from her adoring middle-class friends into reform school and into prostitution. Though she disappears into the underworld of Brisbane and later Sydney, a world described in terms of Dante's Inferno and called “the quarry,” Cat is always present in the memory of her friends and is in fact a kind of psychopomp leading them again and again from their world of comfortable reality to remember and to face over and over the hellish world of violence, murder, drugs, poverty, and sexual depravity that is only a scratch or a slip beneath the surface of the ordinary world. Charlie records reality as a photographer and is fascinated by the denizens of “the quarry”; Catherine moves about the world making film documentaries and is never beyond the provocation of Cat to show the dark side of life; Robbie, the villain in the novel, moves to Sydney and prescribes law as a judge, although of all the characters he is most in need of judgment.
The momentum in the novel comes through the activities of Lucy and Gabriel, the second-generation Cat-addicts, drawn to her and to her world by their need to see through illusion and to encounter the dark truth that she represents. The central mystery of the novel involves the whereabouts of Cat, the question of whether she remains alive, the power she still has to motivate and control the major characters who have in some way touched her.
The Last Magician is ambitious and timely. Ugly alternative realities press themselves on us from every side, and the notion of an enveloping underworld is credible. In terms of prose style, though sometimes succumbing to literary cliché, Hospital is more often seductive and amazing. However, the problems I have with her novel are several: the story is repetitive, the same ground covered again and again; the magnetic nature of the willful Cat is insisted upon, as is the universal importance of the story itself. But finally, Hospital's story is magical. Beware. While it may be medicinal, even chic, to romp in postmodern violence and ugliness, the experience is not pleasant, nor is it meant to be. Enter Turner's world at your own risk, and be sure you won't forget it.
David Callahan (review date Spring 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3810
SOURCE: “Acting in the Public Sphere and the Politics of Memory in Janette Turner Hospital,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 73–81.
[In the following essay, Callahan describes Hospital's body of work as “unsettling and satisfying at the same time.”]
Janette Turner Hospital's work self-consciously privileges sites and moments of tension in which the operations of memory and its reconstructions are placed in question. At the beginning of The Last Magician (1992), to take one of many possible examples, the narrator pauses in her facile insertion of the beginning of Dante's Inferno as a positioning reference for her story when she realizes that: “In the middle of darkness, I came to the black fact that there was no straight way—no way on, no way out.”1 These middles, these locations between two sides or borders, provide fulcrums that problematize both sides, both possible directions, and that thus render identity as always already displaced. But there is much more to Turner Hospital's work than what is, after all, a fashionable displacement. Typical Turner Hospital characters also exist in limbo between cultures and tend to contest both personal and cultural resolutions to the questions these tensions articulate. Add to this Turner Hospital's constant concern with the double binds in which women are situated, and we have both a subtly modulated and fiercely committed examination of the consequences and practices attendant upon contemporary anxieties about cultural and gendered dislocation.2 In this process one of the most significant borders, perhaps the most significant of these interfaces that leak into one another, is one of the less obvious ones: that of the relation between public accountability and responsibility and the representations of memory (with all their attendant ontological problems) that the personal search for displaced meaning and compromised origins in Turner Hospital's work dramatizes.
The search for stable points of memory and thus for sources of personal identity, so intense and troubling in her fiction, is constantly destabilized by the pressure of the public sphere (understood in a general sense and not in the more restricted, eighteenth-century sense with which Habermas made the phrase famous) and by the urgency of accepting responsibility in it. This does not mean that in her work Turner Hospital privileges the private over the public, that she sees the quest for identity as needing to battle against the intrusions of the public in neo-Romantic vein. In Borderline (1985) the principal characters are imagined by the narrator to be attempting, to some extent, to evade or excuse intervening against the grain. Both Felicity and Gus feel themselves slipping out of their “real” lives and dragged into widening public circles as they become involved in the attempt of the Salvadoreans to cross the U.S.A.-Canada border. Despite the problems they have with this, I think it is clear that we are positioned as readers to approve of their involvement, partly by way of moral positioning and partly by way of narrative involvement; that is, we want this narrative to continue and for this we need them to be involved. However, it is noticeable that this reading of the characters' commitment is constructed for us by the withdrawn and self-absorbed narrator, Jean-Marc, who will discover, ironically, that his constructions are in fact interventions of his own, and more, that they are pleasurable.
In The Last Magician there is a more explicit narratorial appeal to the need to face up to both a social and a personal violence literally underlying our every action. In The Last Magician the complicities of the private with the public are assumed and tracked from the beginning by both Lucy and Charlie Chang, reporters on others' lives as television journalist and film-maker, and their occupations are seen to form a continuum with their roles as prostitute and photographer of the quarry (the underworld on which public life feeds and through which it defines its value). In both cases their roles as institutionalized participant-voyeurs, as it were, foreground the gaps between other people's public faces and their unguarded selves, with the clear suggestion that private aggrandizements and power plays intrude too much into the public sphere, not vice versa. The book thus seems to be a sustained appeal to the need to face up to how private and public violence inflect each other, more specifically how the erasure of the other operates on a multitude of levels, from the operation of public triage (sorting out social hierarchies according to “quality”—as perceived by those sections of society that have the power to assert their hierarchies) to the homogenizing priorities of childhood.
As for Proust, with whom Turner Hospital has important similarities, the investigation of the appropriations and effacements of memory and the painful search for origins are ultimately a political project, however personal they may appear on the surface. The establishment of the nature of agency and its always already (re)constructed nature becomes imperative in Turner Hospital's work, but without the consoling certainties of personal identity, cultural affirmation, or received truths. On the track of lost time, and recalling a related quest in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, in Marcel's words, “what we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours.”3 Memory may slither all over the place but that is how we hook ourselves into events, that is how they become events for us. In the search for our own origins there is no disinterested position from which to proceed, but that interestedness becomes or rather brings into view what is value for us and thus where our responsibilities lie.
This intersection of what we might call hermeneutic and moral concerns leads to a triple displacement at the heart of Turner Hospital's work: (1) on the first level there is the sense of ontological displacement that arises from the inevitable interestedness of memory and from its constant coming up against other memories, other versions—“‘Bea's difficult,’ Charade says. ‘It's hardest with someone who's too close. Bea's a patchwork. I'd have to cobble her together from other people's talk … I'd be very unreliable on Bea'”;4 (2) on the second level there is the displacement from one's personal history that this awareness entails and, implicated in this, the realization that the attempt to reconstruct or gain access to that past itself becomes a part of the identity the reconstruction is trying to piece together; (3) on the third level there is the displacement from public event and from the possibilities of public responsibility and intervention that these apparent foreclosures of certain meaning and value seem to posit.
Turner Hospital, in dialogue with these questions, comes down clearly on the side of the necessity of engagement, not just stressing the need actively to intervene but also enforcing the realization that any position, any putative avoidance of action, is also to intervene, so that there is no not intervening. This being the case, we are engaged in a constant moral positioning of ourselves, whether we believe we are or not. Practice is always related to value. Beyond, however, this relatively standard contemporary hermeneutic understanding, it seems apparent that in her fiction there are ways of acting that are good, valuable, right, and that Turner Hospital shows the moral force, indeed responsibility, of what we might call a feminist postmodernism: that is, a postmodernism aware of the fragmented nature of identity, of the (necessary) fiction of the subject position, of the ludic nature of the fictional combinations of these fragments we constantly engage in, but a postmodernism that is prepared to assume the possibility, even the necessity, of some form of seriousness and engagement.
Turner Hospital's work is of interest because of the dynamic and troubling ways in which she vivifies the conflicts and paradoxes inherent in these issues. Almost programmatically, she has worked her way, in her novels, through a testing of their propositions in the messy areas of (to simplify): intercultural constraints and conflicts (The Ivory Swing, 1982), family history and family histories (The Tiger in the Tiger Pit, 1983), the interfaces or borders between the personal and the political (Borderline, 1985), speculation about the nature of creation and reality and the implication these things might have for representing identity and responsibility (Charades, 1989), and, to some extent, the recapitulation and intensification of many of these issues in The Last Magician (1992). Within her short stories the focus tends to be even sharper, especially when dealing with the representations of memory and mechanisms of cultural constancy, which condition dealings between different cultures or subcultures.
In Turner Hospital's first novel, The Ivory Swing, the central scenario of the novel is the woman's attempt to approach the alien culture that surrounds her. But the mere attempt to appreciate and understand also acts upon this world and in this world. At question are the possibilities of agency for women in a world where those possibilities have been circumscribed by men in such a way that acting comes to be constructed as transgressing. Turner Hospital appears to favor the first of the two fundamental political choices outlined by, for example, Marcelle Marini, in “From Minority Creation to Universal Creation”:
is feminist action itself a transitory action destined to make society and culture really mixed spaces for the first time in history? Or is it a matter of constructing for the future a society and culture rigorously parallel and foreign to those of men?5
In her intervention in this sociocultural process, however, Turner Hospital begins with representations of female development stunted and rendered impossible by the social boundaries that prevent both Juliet and Yashoda from developing along lines they perceive as desirable and, to a certain extent, by their complicity in models of powerlessness. She does not subscribe to what, in Jane Marcus's words, is an “essentialist critical stance [that] absolves the female from guilt, complicity and responsibility.”6 In The Ivory Swing the action consists of restating the problems, establishing Turner Hospital's understanding of the multiple double binds under which women operate—a restatement that I find mostly convincing, although not everybody does. Graham Huggan suggests that the novel is in fact “seriously flawed, mismanaged to the extent that [it] ends up by reinforcing the very prejudices [it] sets out to undermine.”7 I find the implicit suggestion in Huggan's article that the anxieties of grappling with cultural stereotypes can be circumvented by not presenting a character or characters who internalize these stereotypes to prefigure some sort of sanitization of the problems.
In Borderline and Charades, however, although such restating is also present, Turner Hospital moves on from this to representations of women acting, succeeding, creating their own spaces and understandings of events, possessing power. That is, in Sally Robinson's summary position in Engendering the Subject, women's self-representation
proceeds by a double movement: simultaneously against normative constructions of Woman that are continually produced by hegemonic discourses and social practices, and toward new forms of representation that disrupt these normative constructions.8
In the development of women's agency in her work, moreover, Turner Hospital is not one to represent women as triumphantly usurping power and intervening heroically in the creation of this mixed society. Her heroines are as mixed as the society in whose creation they are stages, and the sphere in which this mixedness is most apparent is that interface between representation (here memory) and action.
Taking three crucial moments in her fiction, then, I would like to look first at Charades, in which we are led through a maze of investigations into representing the universe, or creation, and into reconstructing Charade's life, or creation. In this twinned process it often appears throughout the novel that reality depends upon the operations of memory in some absolute way: “I can do what I like with the past; it is easy as plasticene; it only exists now and then,” thinks Katherine, close friend of Charade's mother and one of the novel's central characters (p. 141). The novel cunningly leads us into the pasts of the characters in such a way that the malleability of the past seems more than proven, until suddenly we are confronted with something that has been just outside of range, unsuspected, until this moment—the characters' relation to a historical event with a powerful and troubling relation to the nature of memory: the Holocaust. Koenig—the physicist, Charade's lover, and principle male character in the book—mentions a name, and spinning into Charade's “aunt” Katherine's head comes a newspaper poster: “Did Six Million Die? Holocaust a Hoax, Zundel says. More survivors give testimony today” (p. 183). The fashionably plasticene nature of the past does not seem so glib now, and the responsibility to get it right comes into focus. Memory is further contextualized by responsibility moreover to a very public sphere and, typically, a sphere in which the representations by one culture of another culture—Germans of Jews—originated the problem. Although the representation of the Holocaust may not be separable from its reality, the latter has an existence that we have the duty to represent in a way that problematizes, to say the least, any claims for the plasticene nature of memory and reality. As Sue Gillett says in an article on this novel, Koenig's
own experience of the trial, however, forces him to realize that mimesis does not operate in a neutral space and cannot, alone, ensure credibility. … Truth is not inherent in the object itself, but needs the imaginative sympathy of the onlooker in order to exist. Without that sympathy, without the meeting of subject and object, correspondence can find no support.9
Truth, then, cannot exist without our intervening on its behalf, and this leads us to the second moment in Turner Hospital's work I wish to consider. In Borderline we encounter a character reporting a narrative in which other characters appear to be the principal protagonists. What is the point of this narrator? Obviously, Turner Hospital's New York editor wondered too, and Turner Hospital had to plead in a letter: “I cannot emphasize too much that J-M's [Jean-Marc's] chapters are anything but trimmings added to the main plot line.”10 The interposition of this narrator appears to allow both for reflecting upon the central issues of truth, of saying right, of doing right, of bearing witness, and of intervening, and for dramatizing, in Barbara Johnson's words on Billy Budd, that “gaps in cognition, far from being mere absences, take on the performative power of true acts.”11 Jean-Marc battles with that “imaginative sympathy of the onlooker,” as he tells us that “truth must be tempered because mere accuracy was false.”12 In this way he “began by guarding not only against error, but against the spirit of error” (p. 189).
To what extent are we prepared to take this at face value? The answer is that we are prepared to let Jean-Marc invent practically anything as long as we get our story, as long as we get it in terms with which we are familiar. Moreover, as Turner Hospital relates,13 readers tend to deny that Felicity dies just as Jean-Marc does, even though he provides enough evidence for us to accept that this has happened and even though Turner Hospital thought she had written enough to convince us that Felicity had indeed died, been murdered. Among the many possible resonances of this narratorial relationship, one is pertinent to our purpose: it is not possible not to intervene, not possible not to assume responsibility. Even the distanced piano tuner cannot avoid imaginative sympathy or an awareness of the pleasures and dangers of intervening, that is, of the pleasures and dangers of wielding responsibility (which recalls the blind piano tuner, Jean-Yves, in Angela Carter's “The Bloody Chamber” (1979); putatively unseeing and ineffectual, he nevertheless denies his ineffectuality and intervenes just at the crucial moment to save the threatened woman from death).14 As Jean-Marc proceeds with his narrative, he comes increasingly to realize the attractions it holds and ironically reproduces to some extent what he perceives to be the megalomania of his painter father. He approaches an understanding of, finally, in Deborah Bowen's words on Janette Turner Hospital, “the image's representation of the past as a magical site of potential transfiguration.”15 In this way the novel carries out a simultaneous representation of two public interventions: that of Felicity and Gus helping someone they do not know in the face of danger and death, and that of Jean-Marc reconstructing this to the point where he understands that the personal realm he thought he inhabited is not enough.
The third episode is Gabriel's anguishing memory of his father engaged in inserting himself into history and public event, in The Last Magician. Both central characters in the novel's consideration of the circulation of power in society, Gabriel's father serves as the principle agent of the suppression of difference, while Gabriel is both an investigator of his father's power, and of the hidden machinations of the powerful in general, as well as one of his father's principle victims. Gabriel's father, later to become Judge Robinson Gray,16 has observed a neighbor getting into the paper on the occasion of the phasing out of Brisbane's trams. Intensely jealous, he deliberately stages an appearance on a tram so as to build up his public profile, and, as he practices on his son the preceding day before uttering it (supposedly off the cuff) to a reporter, he claims: “The present crosses the Great Divide and descends into history” (p. 149). While he has apparently been raiding the books in his library to come up with inspiration for what he is going to say to the (tipped-off) reporter, there is a further intratextual allusion here in the use of “descends.” Gabriel's father intends it to sound portentous, intends it to refer to an important geographico-cultural site for Australians—the Great Dividing Range—but it also brings to mind the Dantean network in the novel, the underworld of the lost and damned, called the “quarry” (after the famous photograph by Sebastião Salgado of Brazilian garimpeiros quarrying for gold in a vast mud pit), so that in this novel of undermining levels Robinson Gray undermines himself by relating his history, or his History, to a descent, to the underworld.
Wanting to be a part of History, of public event, he damns himself both in terms of the novel's dynamics of allusion and in terms of his son's perception of him. In this attempt to insert himself into public awareness, Gabriel perceives his father's inauthentic nature, that the public sphere for him is not a realm of public concern but rather of self-aggrandizement. This episode becomes extremely complex and important in the development of the novel, but for my purposes here I merely wish to indicate Turner Hospital's insistent attacks on the appropriation of the public sphere for the aggrandizements of personal power and her determination that we should see this appropriation as such. History is not plasticene, any more than is personal memory, and whatever our difficulties of representationality, our responsibility to history remains firmly delineated in her fiction. The public sphere must not be allowed to be appropriated by liars, cheats, and oppressors.
With these brief core samples from Turner Hospital's fiction I have wished to suggest that her fiction bears witness to a tough-minded confrontation both of contemporary understandings of reality as constructed and of the embattled nature of responsibility to event and representation. Nonetheless, while her fiction may be tough-minded, and while Turner Hospital loads the narrative dice in favor of committed intervention, the destabilizing of identity witnessed in her work through her examination of the operations of memory and cultural displacement renders the basis for such action highly problematical. We have her word for it that, for example, in Borderline one of Turner Hospital's primary concerns was “the essential unreality, for us in the safe and insulated North American middle class … of many real and verifiable and quite horrific events which go on daily all around us in the world.”17 Yet clear answers as to how the equally strongly delineated argument in her work that a relation between the always already displaced nature of memory and subject position, on the one hand, and public responsibility, on the other hand, may be articulated or hermeneutically tidied up do not seem forthcoming. Slightly rephrasing Michael Ryan, “displaceability is born at the same moment as natural [responsibility]. There is no moment prior to the possibility of displacement when [responsibilities] are purely natural.”18 Janette Turner Hospital's understanding of the negotiations this difficulty involves is perhaps why her work is so unsettling and satisfying at the same time, at least to this reader, and her further grapplings with the politics of memory eagerly awaited.
Janette Turner Hospital, The Last Magician (London: Virago, 1992), p. 3. Further references will be cited in the text.
See my “Janette Turner Hospital and the Discourse of Displacement,” in (Inter)national Dimensions of World Literature in English, ed. W. Zach (Tübingen: G. Narr, 1996), pp. 335–40.
Marcel Proust, Time Regained, Vol. XII of Remembrance of Things Past, trans. Andreas Mayor (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970), p. 241. I prefer to refer to this book as In Search of Lost Time, as it has finally appeared in the version, unfortunately unavailable to me, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D. J. Enright (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992).
Turner Hospital, Charades (London: Virago, 1990), pp. 221–22. Further references will be cited in the text.
Marcelle Marini, “From Minority Creation to Universal Creation,” NLH, 24 (1993), 228.
Jane Marcus, “Alibis and Legends: The Ethics of Elsewhereness, Gender and Estrangement,” in Women's Writing in Exile, ed. Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), p. 272.
Graham Huggan, “Orientalism Reconfirmed? Stereotypes of East-West Encounter in Janette Turner Hospital's The Ivory Swing and Yvon Rivard's Les Silences du Corbeau,” Canadian Literature, 132 (Spring 1992), 46.
Sally Robinson, Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women's Fiction (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), p. 11.
Sue Gillett, “Charades: Searching for Father Time: Memory and the Uncertainty Principle,” New Literatures Review, 21 (Summer 1991), 71.
Turner Hospital, “Letter to a New York Editor,” Meanjin [Melbourne, Australia], 47 (1988), 563.
Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 108.
Turner Hospital, Borderline (London: Virago, 1990), p. 189. Further references will be cited in the text.
See Turner Hospital, “Letter to a New York Editor.”
Angela Carter, “The Bloody Chamber,” in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 7–52.
Deborah Bowen, “Borderline Magic: Janette Turner Hospital and Transfiguration by Photography,” Studies in Canadian Literature/Etudes de la littérature canadienne, 16 (1991), 195.
Turner Hospital has a fascination with judges, invariably male, those arbiters of laws whose flaws trouble her, whose flaws suggest the tenuous and rotten basis of the social contracts by which we bind ourselves.
Turner Hospital, “Letter to a New York Editor,” 560.
Michael Ryan, “Deconstruction and Social Theory: The Case of Liberalism,” in Displacement: Derrida and After, ed. Mark Krupnick (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), p. 159.
Selina Samuels (essay date Summer 1996)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5689
SOURCE: “Dislocation and Memory in the Short Stories of Janette Turner Hospital,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 20, No. 1, Summer, 1996, pp. 85-95.
[In the following essay, Samuels examines the Australian settings, themes of dislocation and exile, and interrelated aspects of past, place, and national identity in Hospital's short fiction, particularly in light of Hospital's Australian origins and expatriate perspective.]
In the eponymous first story in the collection entitled Isobars,1 Janette Turner Hospital describes the convolution of time and place, the region of memory: “These particular isobars connect points where the pressure of memory exerts an equivalent force” (p. 1). Hospital's “isobars,” in which memory is cyclical and identity is entangled in evocations of place, contain moments of crisis and illumination that blur the distinction between past and present. The major concerns of Hospital's short stories in the collections Dislocations2 and Isobars are distinctive of the short story form and of expatriate fiction: fragmentation and isolation, transitoriness and dislocation. The word “dislocation” indicates the significance of place, of location, in Hospital's short stories. Her ambivalence toward place is reflected in the way in which she moves among countries in her stories—Australia, India, Canada, the United States—and in the dislocation felt by her characters, who are consistently described as inhabiting the peripheries of society. Hospital often evokes place in the form of a representation of “home,” which is located in memories: the memories of Hospital's characters and of the writer herself. Hospital left Brisbane in 1967, and, after living in the United States, Canada, India, and London, she now divides her time among Canada, Australia, and Boston and is best described as an expatriate writer. Despite this—and the fact that her work is probably better known in North America than in Australia—she must be considered an Australian writer, not only because she was born in Melbourne, but because her short stories reveal her implicit connection to the places of her childhood, and especially to Queensland.
Although Janette Turner Hospital locates her stories in several countries, those stories that are set in Australia are, in my view, her most effective. This perception may be the inevitable romanticism of an expatriate Australian reading the writing of an expatriate Australian, but, nevertheless, it is certainly true that she defines place and its effect on personal identity most clearly in her Australian stories. In a review of Isobars, Dennis Danvers maintains that Hospital's best stories are those that concentrate more on the story itself than on the ideas behind it.3 I would add that her most successful stories are those that place story within a tangible context and by doing so emphasize the emotive over the cerebral. This emotive quality is frequently positioned in the use of memory, and the idea of the past is entwined with her literary recreations of her own childhood. It is not surprising that the number of stories about Australia increases in Hospital's second collection, nor that her two most recent novels, Charades (1988) and The Last Magician (1992), indicate an artistic return to Australia. It seems, particularly in Isobars, that the writer's memory is reflected in the memories of her characters, some of whom remember their pasts in Australia while living in another part of the world. Many of the stories in both collections, most notably “The Bloody Past, The Wandering Future” and “After Long Absence,” are clearly autobiographical.
Hospital's tendency to romanticize the past and past place is, I believe, an inevitable aspect of the fiction of the exile or expatriate. The experiences of the exile and the expatriate are not the same: the expatriate is voluntarily detached from his or her original homeland, while the exile is banished and unable to return, inevitably producing a more fervent yearning for home.4 Often, however, expatriation becomes, over a course of years, a form of cultural or emotional exile, and both conditions promote a sense of dislocation and romanticism of the past. As Andrew Gurr notes, “The expatriate seeks to identify or create a cultural history and therefore a cultural identity which is necessarily based on the past.”5 Hospital has a tendency to create—to adapt a phrase from Salman Rushdie—Australias of the mind.6 Her emphasis on memory in her fiction, her identity as an expatriate living in both Canada and Australia, and the wandering identities of so many of her characters, all contribute to the schematic approach which she adopts in her descriptions of place. The notion of exile for Australian writers has always been bound up with representations of the land: for the colonial outcasts from Britain, Australia was a place of exile, a “threat to be mastered, an object to be possessed, an Other to be incorporated into or appropriated by the self.”7 Furthermore, I would suggest that the position of Australia has tended to be perceived by Australian writers as one of cultural exile from the metropolis. As Diana Brydon and Helen Tiffin maintain, “all Australians, black and white, still suffer from the ‘cultural cringe’ induced by the complex of imperial fictions.”8 It is significant that in “Isobars,” which functions as Hospital's explication of her work, her discussion of memory centers on location: Melbourne, India, Canada, Brisbane. These locations appear to dissolve into one another as the water of the pond in the park in Melbourne where she played as a child becomes the Arabian Sea in southern India, which in turn freezes to become a Canadian lake in winter. Memory is circular, and memory is place. The narrative moves arbitrarily between Melbourne and Brisbane; indeed, Melbourne becomes Brisbane in the memory of the writer. Hospital writes, “they are one circle now, rampart, the ring of accusers, prison wall, ghetto, all the same circle” (Isobars, p. 7). These moments of confluence in memory and image are isobars, and such moments are the essence of Hospital's short stories.
Modern short stories are characterized by their fragmentation and lack of resolution. This is in part a result of the form itself, with its emphasis on a single moment, a significant experience: Nadine Gordimer's “flash of fireflies.”9 I would suggest that this fragmentation, along with the sense of isolation which Frank O'Connor has identified10 and which so many of Hospital's characters share, is also characteristic of writing from the margins of society. O'Connor has suggested that the short story flourishes in an incompletely developed culture such as a regional culture, or, presumably, a postcolonial culture, lacking total social cohesion. As Clare Hanson notes, “The short story seems to be the mode preferred by those writers who are not writing from within a fixed and stable cultural framework.”11 This is descriptive of the experiences of writers who write from the frontiers, such as writers from postcolonial cultures, and, of course, female writers. It is also descriptive of Janette Turner Hospital's characters and their relationship to place. Just as notions of exile for Australian writers have been bound up in representations of the land, the portrayal of Australian location and landscape has been central to evocations of Australian identity. Thus, Hospital writes from within an Australian tradition. The desire to create a national identity, for example, is reflected in the development of the Australian short story from Henry Lawson's popular images of outback survival, images which persisted in national literature until the publication in 1955 of Patrick White's The Tree of Man, which challenged the accepted portraits of Australia and altered the course of Australian literature.12 As Kay Schaffer notes, “the land is the terrain on and against which both Australian men and women symbolically measure their identity.”13 Hospital's short fiction, proceeding from a disjointed, displaced notion of location towards an apparent acceptance of identity, albeit an ambiguous one, expresses a re-creation and exploration of such images of Australia.
In her concentration on members of postcolonial cultures who look to the centers, moving away from parochial homelands, Hospital discusses not only the difficulties of describing experience and relating present experience to that of the past, but also the problematic nature of place within time.14 This emphasis takes the form in some stories of a detached description of the Indian Community in Canada, a large and ghettorized Diaspora;15 “Happy Diwali,” from Dislocations, and “Queen of Pentacles, Nine of Swords,” from Isobars, describe this community. The notion of transitoriness is expressed in Hospital's wandering and displaced academics, situated in American or Canadian universities, but remembering their homes in Australia. In “To Be Discontinued,” Katharine stands on a Canadian campus and remembers the University of Queensland, moving out of one place and into another that is her past, remembering the smell of magnolia and jasmine, the sensual lush atmosphere of Queensland, contrasted with the cold sterility of Lake Ontario. For many of Hospital's characters, memory appears to transform time utterly, telescoping the past into the present and removing all sense of linearity. Edward Said describes the collision of past and present as a feature of the literature of exile: “For an exile, habits of life, expression or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment. Thus, both the new and the old environments are vivid, actual, occurring together contrapuntally.”16 In “The Loss of Faith,” an expatriate Australian academic and sexual philanderer sees his first wife, the Faith of the title, on the subway in New York on the day on which she dies in Sydney. This vision is tied up in his sense of national identity, which has been blurred after many years in America and many marriages. In Adam's memory, people and place are inextricably linked, and the death of his first wife, so far away, throws his past and the location of it into sharp relief. The emphasis in this story, and indeed throughout Isobars, is on the power of memory to evoke place and on the significance of location—and, of course, dislocation—in the creation of individual identity.
The inescapable nature of the past, and of the writer's own past, is indicated by Hospital's pungent descriptions of Australia, descriptions that are less formulaic than her portrayals of the sterile academic environment of Canada and the United States. However, Hospital's concern is the mythical and symbolic force of place as the repository of memory, and to some extent her portrayals of Sydney and Brisbane are schematic. Prefiguring her most recent novel, The Last Magician, Sydney is a city of corruption and cheap sexual thrills. In “Bondi,” Sydney's most famous beach is the location of voyeurism and racial battles. Amid the bare breasts and skimpy briefs, “the peacock parade on its mating route between towels and bodies” (Isobars, p. 73), a battle breaks out between the white beachgoers and the “wogs,” revealing the ugliness at the heart of Bondi hedonism, an ugliness that Hospital tends to identify with Sydney itself.
It's wogs! The wogs started it. They were bothering a white girl, they threw sand in a white lady's face, they kicked a football right into a little kid's head, a little white kid, he's got concussion. Theories fly as fast as punches, as thick as blood. Go get’em, send the buggers back where they bloody came from.
Walking on the beach in the early morning of the following day, the protagonist's reverie is shattered when she steps on a hypodermic syringe, and looking around her she surveys the beach: the “vision splendid” of “hundreds of condoms and hypodermics” (p. 81). Sydney is Hospital's image of the polluted paradise, a corrupted colony defiled by the urgency of addiction and the loss of identity. The hypocrisy of Australia's biggest city is expressed in “Eggshell Expressway,” in which a judge who is almost fanatically obsessed by his desire to clean up the “expressway underpass,” “that labyrinth, that slime-pit, that sewer-maze” (p. 107), visits a prostitute who allows him the thrill of crossing the boundaries, the dotted lines, the fortification lines between the underpass and “civilization.” His final betrayal by the prostitute's pimp is inevitable: the judge is an aging Prince Hal who fails to escape in time, as self-destructive and subterranean as are those who inhabit the underpass. Hospital's image of Sydney is effective but stylized, indicating her preoccupation with the symbolic significance of place.
Brisbane is the parochial land of the writer's youth, where memories of difference and ostracism emit from the mango tree outside the kitchen window. In “The Bloody Past, The Wandering Future,” Hospital describes the role that Brisbane plays in the narrator's—and presumably her own—life, the city to which her great-grandfather escaped from Eastbourne and from his wife and child, establishing a train of events that made Brisbane “home.” The narrator's memories catch her unawares; they are her “visitants” (p. 183); she may be looking at the St. Lawrence river, but it is the Brisbane River that she sees, flooding like her memories, the fear of the loss of Brisbane to the water and mud drawing her to return.
As for us, my expatriate husband and myself, the mere thought of Brisbane almost ceasing to be did something to us. We couldn't afford it, but we had to go home—come home—that summer; the northern summer, that is—though it was a mild and sweet-smelling winter in Brisbane, and the wattles were in bloom along the river.
In her memories, Brisbane is quaint and colonial, the 1953 coronation celebrated with fervor and festivity, the city festooned with colored bunting, watched on television sets in shop windows because no one had her own television set. The ambivalence of Hospital's attitude to Brisbane and to her past is highlighted in this story. After only two generations in Australia, the narrator's father says of Brisbane: “‘This is the place where we belong. … You'll always belong here. And your children. And your children's children’” (pp. 187–88). But at the end of the story, she remembers walking with her grandfather in a park and looking at the statue of Persephone. She is weeping because she misses her mother, her grandfather tells her: “‘She misses her mother Demeter. And she wants to go back. Whichever world she's in, she always misses the other one and wants to go back’” (p. 189).
Hospital contrasts the gentle sentimentality of her evocations of Brisbane with the descriptions of northern Queensland, marginalized and lost, a geographical “Other.” In some of her most powerful stories, such as “You Gave Me Hyacinths,” “The Last of the Hapsburgs,” and “The Second Coming of Come-by-Chance,” the protagonist is an outsider within a peripheral community, a teacher in a small town in far north Queensland. In “The Last of the Hapsburgs,” the second story in Isobars, Miss Davenport is in exile, teaching in a school in Port Douglas. Her displacement in this parochial environment is expressed by her identification with two of her students who are also outsiders, Hazel, who is Aboriginal and therefore representative of a colonized culture displaced in its own land, and Rebecca, whose parents are Jewish and survivors of the Holocaust. The description of Rebecca's family, nicknamed “the Last of the Hapsburgs” by the hostile and insensitive locals, indicates poignantly the discordance of place. They are rumored to live in a castle in the Daintree Forest, and to be, of course, “as rich as Midas” (p. 15). Miss Davenport discovers, however, when invited home for shabbas, a ritual alien to the dense rainforest of Queensland, that the Weiss home is more like a farmhouse out of the Black Forest and that they are terribly poor. As they speak of Mendelssohn and literature over dinner, it seems bizarre to Miss Davenport that they have chosen such a place in which to escape the demons of the past. But they have not escaped. Rebecca's parents still listen to Leo, Mr. Weiss' oldest son, play the violin, although he was killed in the Holocaust. The presence of the past and its horrors so pervade the house in the Daintree that Miss Davenport also hears Leo play:
And then, she wrote to Ida, I don't know how to explain this, but I heard it too. I definitely began to hear a violin. At first it was so faint that I thought I was hearing the echo of Mr Weiss's hope, but then it was Mendelssohn, unmistakably. The first movement of the violin concerto. When it ended, Mr Weiss was crying.
Miss Davenport, herself an exile from some unnamed scandal, encourages Rebecca to apply for scholarships, to escape from Port Douglas and its suffocating insignificance, but Rebecca replies, “‘But this is where we've escaped to’” (p. 23). In an attempt to forge some sort of bond between them and between themselves and their environment, Miss Davenport invites the girls to swim with her in the gorge, but it is an experiment that fails. Their escape to the coolness and seclusion of the pool is shattered by the arrival of a group of five boys, who subject them to terrible humiliation, commenting on their naked bodies, stealing their clothes, and finally defecating into the pool. For Hospital, Queensland is not only a place of escape, but also one of entrapment.
In “The Second Coming of Come-by-Chance,” Hospital tells the rather surreal tale of a town in Northern Queensland that emerges as the lake in which it had been submerged evaporates during a particularly fierce drought. The excitement surrounding the resurfacing of this town is reminiscent of gold fever, but there is some ambiguity about the nature of Come-by-Chance; although everyone at the site can see the emerging buildings, no trace of them shows up in photographs. Hospital juxtaposes the eerie nature of this situation with her satire of the portentous interpretations of politicians and religious spokespeople, who pompously associate this remarkable occurrence with the imminent election in Queensland (“Come-by-Chance became symbol and rallying cry for a lost way of life, a simpler cleaner time, which each political party vowed to restore”—Isobars, p. 43) or the imminent second coming, depending on political and religious affiliations. The appearance of Adeline Capper, however, shatters the satirical style of the story, as she returns to Come-by-Chance after many years in a form of emotional exile. Adeline had been the teacher at the local school, a common Hospital outsider who made the mistake of importing progressive ideas into a blinkered society. The re-emergence of the town comes to symbolize the re-emergence of Adeline's past, her suppressed nightmares. Indeed, Adeline thinks of the town as the place where the victims of nightmares are trapped, “[a]nd they can never leave” (p. 43). The truth which Adeline denied so long ago, and which even now haunts her, must be exposed as Come-by-Chance emerges into the harsh drought-stricken landscape: years earlier, walking home from visiting an Aboriginal family, an unconventional and even subversive act in itself, Adeline was offered a lift by local policemen and then raped by them, the rape blamed on the one would ever believe the truth shatter her: “She thinks: I will never know for sure again if night is night and day is day, what is dream or not-dream” (p. 48). Her terrifying insight into the arbitrary nature of truth and of experience is mirrored by the mysterious re-appearance of Come-by-Chance, which may or may not be a mirage. Does it exist, or have we created it as an image of collective past, collective guilt, like Adeline's guilt at her complicity in the wrongful conviction of the Aboriginal men of her rape? “At times one has to ask oneself,” writes a reporter for the Melbourne newspaper Age, “if Queensland is our own Gothic invention, a kind of morality play, the Bosch canvas of the Australian psyche, a sort of perpetual memento mori that points to the frailty of the skein of civilisation reaching out so tentatively from our southern cities” (p. 50). He continues:
To return to Sydney or Melbourne and write of the primitive violence, the yobbo mentality, the mystics, the pathetic old woman generating lurid and gratuitous confessions, the general sense of mass hallucination … to speak of this is to risk charges of sensationalism. And indeed, after mere days back in the real world, one has the sense of emerging from a drugged and aberrant condition.
One has to ask oneself: Does Queensland actually exist?
And one has to conclude: I think not.
Queensland is a primitive state of mind from which the great majority of us, mercifully, have long since evolved. And Come-by-Chance is a dream within a nightmare, the hysteric's utopia, the city of Robespierre, Stalin, Jim Jones, the vision of purity from which history recoils.
This description of Queensland from a southern journalist reveals clearly the inevitable separatism that takes place in large countries. Rejecting the possibilities of an homogenous national consciousness, Australians constitute their identities through comparison: Sydney with Melbourne, New South Wales with Queensland, the mainland with Tasmania. Thea Astley, a Queensland writer, maintains that the portrayal of Queensland is “all in the antitheses. The contrasts. The contradictions.”17 This passage is also reminiscent of the colonial representations of Australia and other exotic locations as “other”: primitive, difficult to accept, alien. This is, of course, comparable to Edward Said's argument in Orientalism, which exposes the imperial strategy of control through the creation and perpetuation of the construction of the Oriental as Other.18 Here, Hospital makes a rather sardonic reference to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with Queensland as the repository of colonial fears, the aberrant other, the “hallucination” at the heart of the civilized colonized world. Such a place is, naturally, as seductive as it is terrifying, and Hospital's descriptions of the landscape reveal the literary conventions from which she is writing, constituting Queensland as recognizable exotica:
Summer comes hot and steamy with the heavy smell of raw sugar to the north—east coast of Australia. The cane pushes through the rotting window blinds and grows into the cracks and corners of the mind. It ripens in the heart at night, and its crushed sweetness drips into dreams. I have woken brushing from my eyelids the silky plumes that burst up into harvest time. And I have stood smoke—blackened as the cane fires licked the night sky, and kicked my way through the charred stubble after the men have slashed at the naked stalks and sent them churning through the mill.
(“You Gave Me Hyacinths,” Dislocations, p. 23)
Such passages reveal a paradoxical tendency within Hospital's writing: to romanticize a landscape that exists in her memory rather than in her present experience and to write for a foreign market. She frequently characterizes Queensland as the exotic frontier of civilization, only superficially tamed, a portrait that I believe is self-consciously designed to appeal to readers to whom Australia is the end of the universe and recognizable only for boomerangs and Crocodile Dundee. The language that she uses is predictably literary, but perhaps this is the only language available to her. As Brydon and Tiffin note in the recent Decolonising Fictions, for the majority of writers in Australia there is no alternative to English, and the challenge for these writers is to make English their own and “make it register the specifics of their own experiences.”19 Perhaps, as Miss Davenport realizes in “The Last of the Hapsburgs,” there is not existing language to describe such surroundings as these:
Surf rises from her ankles to her knees. Sing me North Queensland, it lisps with its slickering tongues.
I can't, she laments, hoisting up her skirt. I can't.
She would need a different sort of alphabet, a chlorophyll, a solar one.
The place will not fit into words.
Similarly, Adeline Capper, escaping from Come-by-Chance to Melbourne, discovers that she cannot communicate in the civilized, cultured, and—to her—meaningless words of that southern city: “She was mute. The same hollow alphabet. No. Hollower. She could not acquire the knack of words that floated so weightlessly. She fled back to Queensland. She dreamed of alphabets that sent down deep webbing roots” (Isobars, p. 48). The lack of respect for language is itself a form of paralyzing isolation, a reinforcement of a peripheral consciousness, a colonization. In both stories, Hospital portrays the characters' powerlessness in terms of their relationships towards language and of the irrelevance of the available words to their experiences. In his study of the short story writers of Canada and New Zealand, W. H. New argues that the writers from the fragments of European culture (and few places can be more fragmented and isolated than far north Queensland), developing disparately, are faced with the dilemma of the nature and manner of expression: “… as the writers in the new societies attempted to make literature out of their own experience they faced three problems of story-telling: whose story to tell, whom to tell it to, how to tell it.”20 As the short story reflects the fragmentation of modern consciousness, it also lends itself to the expression of the vision of those outside the mainstream culture and language.
Adeline cannot find the language to speak the truth and denounce her attackers. Words have become a form of attack and are identified with the rape: “… she can remember only grass and ants and the shapes of words. The words themselves are jagged, they hurt her skin” (Isobars, p. 46). The language of the boys who terrorize Miss Davenport, Rebecca, and Hazel in the pool in “The Last of the Hapsburgs” is a weapon: unanswerable and mysterious, defiling, brutal, revealing the lack of power of the women. “The acts of men, even when they are boys, Miss Davenport thought, are shouts that rip open the signs that try to contain them. We have no access to a language of such noisiness. Our voices are micemutter, silly whispers” (Isobars, p. 27). Just as Miss Davenport and Adeline can use only the language conferred upon them, preventing them from ever accurately expressing their experiences, Hospital is trapped by a language that cannot conceive of the fact of northern Queensland, refuting its logic, questioning its existence. Her tendency to mythologize, then, is a form of emotional shorthand, a poignant evocation of a place that mystifies and beckons, a mingling of confusion, and a need to return.21
I have concentrated on Hospital's Australian stories not only to indicate the emphasis on place within memory, but also to illustrate the way in which the memory of the reader may function within the story. The question I have asked myself while reading these stories is whether my preference for Hospital's stories about Australia is due to the fact that I am filling the gaps of the narrative with my own memories. Hospital's stories concentrate on the moment of “instantaneous perception,”22 in which the past is implicit, but vague and emotive, relying on absence and silence. David Miall suggests that the elliptical nature of the modern short story requires the reader constantly to reinterpret his or her knowledge, oscillating between the building and the breaking of illusions. The reader resorts to an emotional response, to prediction and anticipation, to fill the gaps and thus reconstitute the story.23 Eudora Welty would argue that this engages the reader's memory, reconfiguring the story according to remembered experience.24 The poignancy of remembered place is implicit in the creation of the archetypal image of the isolated wanderer, Ulysses or Odysseus. “Home” is a powerful image and is made more powerful by the reader's placing her or himself within the narrative, locating a personal image of “home,” the place from which one has escaped but for which one will eternally yearn. Memory and dislocation are therefore mingled. My identification with Hospital's stories is perhaps more specific than that of readers who were not born in Australia (although her descriptions of my home, Sydney, are not particularly romantic or welcoming), but the notions of memory and displacement that pervade her stories are universal.
“After Long Absence” is the final story in Hospital's first collection of short stories, Dislocations. In this story, the narrator, a writer, returns to her parents' home in Brisbane, seeking some undefined resolution or catharsis. Despite the time she has spent away from her family, she characterizes her relationship with her parents as “the same old roller-coaster of anger and love” (Dislocations, p. 203). She has rejected their strict religious outlook on life and still resents her upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness and the ostracism which it entailed. Her father prefigures the reconciliation that she craves by allowing his wine glass to be filled at a lunch with her friends, and even taking polite sips from the glass, an act of compromise and love that she finds herself unable to mirror. Asked to read the Bible at a family dinner, she refuses, although she knows, “[i]t cannot be a concession anywhere near as great as my father's two sips of wine—a costly self-damning act” (p. 210). Her inability to compromise or to forgive horrifies and shames her, but it teaches her something very important: she cannot go home. Her epiphany is not a celebration of her return, but an accentuation of her homelessness and displacement, even in the midst of her family.
The final story in Isobars, “Here and Now,” concerns an academic, Alison, in Ontario, who receives a phone call from Brisbane telling her that her mother has died. The flood of memories that this news produces causes location to collide: Lake Ontario becomes the Brisbane River, and she realizes her displacement from either vision. The time difference between Canada and Australia enhances the confusion surrounding place. Looking at both places at once, “the frozen loop of a Queensland river,” Alison realizes that her mother “died in the early hours of tomorrow morning” (Isobars, p. 176). The relationship between past and present is reflected in the ninety-year-old Walter's memory of whales beached on the east coast of Australia, a memory that appears to him to be a vital description of the present:
… the people of the coast are forming water lines, passing buckets, keeping them wet and alive. One by one, they are being dragged back to the water and towed out to sea. Wonderful people, the Australians. I walk along the beaches, you know, and watch. … It was because of the whales that I sent my son out there, after the war. He never came back.
The fluidity of time, of memory, and of location in this story contrast with the rigid delineation between past and present in “After Long Absence.” At the end of “Here and Now,” Alison realizes that she must return to Brisbane, to her past, which is also her present: “Tomorrow, Alison thinks, I will fly all the way back to the beginning” (Isobars, p. 177). Janette Turner Hospital's two collections of short stories, both concerned with memory and with the contrapuntal relationship between location and dislocation, chart a movement from a sense of the ambiguity and transitoriness of place to an almost intoxicated desire to return.
Janette Turner Hospital, Isobars (University of Queensland Press, 1990). All subsequent quotations from this edition will be included parenthetically in the text.
Janette Turner Hospital, Dislocations (University of Queensland Press, 1986). All subsequent quotations from this edition will be included parenthetically in the text.
Dennis Danvers, Review of Isobars, Antipode, V (1991), p. 148.
Andrew Gurr quotes an article by Mary McCarthy to this effect, “Exiles, Expatriates and Internal Emigres,” The Listener, LXXXVI (1971), pp. 705–08, in Writers in Exile (The Harvester Press, 1981), p. 18.
Writers in Exile, p. 23.
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (Granta/Penguin, 1991). Rushdie writes of Indian expatriate literature: “Exiles or emigrants or expatriates are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind” (p. 10).
Kay Schaffer, “Women and the Bush: Australian National Identity and Representations of the Feminine,” Antipodes, III (1989), p. 8.
Diana Brydon and Helen Tiffin, Decolonizing Fictions (Dangaroo Press, 1993), p. 50.
In “The Flash of the Fireflies,” Short Story Theories, ed. Charles May (Ohio University Press, 1976), pp. 179–80.
Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (The World Publishing Co., 1963).
Clare Hanson, Short Stories and Short Fictions 1880–1980 (Macmillan Press, 1985), p. 12.
I am indebted for this idea to Professor Brian Matthews, Head of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London.
Schaeffer, p. 9.
Valerie Shaw, in The Short Story: A Critical Introduction (Longman, 1983), analyzes the vital issue of transitoriness in representations of place, representations that are of particular importance in the writing of exiles and expatriates.
These stories are reminiscent of Bharati Mukherjee's stories about the Indian ghettoes in Canada, in her collection Darkness.
Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture, R. Ferguson, et al, eds. (MIT Press, 1990), p. 366.
Thea Astley, “Being a Queenslander: A Form of Literary and Geographical Conceit,” Southerly, XXXVI (1976), p. 263.
Edward Said, Orientalism (Penguin, 1991).
Brydon and Tiffin, p. 30.
W. H. New, “Dreams of Speech and Violence,” The Art of the Short Story in Canada and New Zealand, (University of Toronto Press, 1987), p. 22.
The short story form, characterized as much by what is omitted as by what is stated, is well suited to those writers whose relationship to the world is constituted by boundaries, powerlessness, silence. As New writes in reference to Katherine Mansfield's “The Bay”: “language is power; language is male; male language cannot express female understanding; therefore a female using male language acquires a power only to the degree she becomes a male surrogate; but a surrogate maleness produces only a surrogate power, neither of them real; therefore language does not represent power or reality for a female; except that in reality the system that equates power with male language still exists” (p. 216).
This is an expression used by Jean Pickering in “Time and the Short Story,” in Re-reading the Short Story, Clare Hanson, ed. (Macmillan Press, 1989), p. 47.
David Miall, “Text and Affect: A Model of Story Understanding,” in Re-reading the Short Story, p. 10.
Eudora Welty, “The Reading and Writing of Short Stories,” in May, p. 171.
Ruth Brandon (review date 4 October 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
SOURCE: “Desert Hearts,” in New Statesman, October 4, 1996, p. 45.
[In the following review, Brandon offers a positive assessment of Oyster.]
If you want to write novels these days, the old white Commonwealth is the place to be born. There's a sweep and poetic confidence in the work of a Rushdie, a Malouf, or in the Newfoundland of Annie Proulx, that leaves most English novels looking tame and parochial. Janette Turner Hospital (born in Australia, living in Canada) is up there with the very best.
Oyster is about demagoguery, mass hysteria and the closed communities in which they flourish. To the Queensland opal-mining townlet of Outer Maroo, lost in the western outback, comes the mysterious and charismatic Oyster. He, too, is drawn by opals, but also by the prospect of power. He sets himself up as leader of a millennial community just outside town. Young people in search of a better life drift in there. Oyster is their god and their prophet; he has them in his thrall; they become his creatures.
The townsfolk fear and distrust all foreigners. Why? What are they hiding? Oyster's Reef, his community, vanishes. What happened to it? Who is Oyster and what is the secret of his power? The catalyst for the showdown is the arrival in town of Nick and Sarah, each of whom has lost a child to Oyster's Reef.
There is no exit from either Outer Maroo or Oyster's Reef; no point of contact with the outside world. Under these circumstances notions of reality become relative. The distorted seems normal, the mad becomes sane.
The barren, drought-stricken wilderness of Outer Maroo is a fair approximation of Hell; Oyster's community, when it first begins, seems like a sort of Heaven. But the tragic end is never in question.
We follow with bated breath the steps to Armageddon. The reader is further hooked, and disbelief suspended, because we, too, have no point of comparison. To most of us the Queensland outback is as alien as Mars, and about as extreme in both climate and landscape.
Oyster is cunningly constructed: told from different viewpoints, it moves forwards and backwards in time. Its tight plotting and ventriloquial characterisation gives it the grip of a thriller. But it manages to overcome the main pitfall of such tales: can the ending, with all its necessary unravellings, avoid anticlimax? The answer is that if, as here, your story is based upon mood and character rather than intricacies of plot, it can.
Oyster has other virtues. Its language is sensuous and poetic, disproving the general rule that you can have language (Rushdie, Amis) or engagement (Rendell) but not both. Its psychology is sub-fie. And it achieves the mysterious freedoms of magic realism without succumbing to the tiresome cop-out of failing to answer the questions you've raised.
In short, Oyster triumphantly walks a tricky tightrope. One result is that even the smallest lapses jar. Occasionally the language gets too carried away or the symbolism is too rawly visible. And can any book still quote Alice in Wonderland and live? These are cavils. This is a wonderful book that deserves to sell millions.
Peter Robb (review date 6 March 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2151
SOURCE: “Roasted,” in London Review of Books, March 6, 1997, p. 26.
[In the following review of Oyster, Robb finds shortcomings in the novel's heavy-handed profundity and improbable plot and characters.]
Ten or so years ago I stayed with a friend who was a senior doctor in Queensland's largest hospital, the Royal Brisbane. Most weekends he was on call to attend emergencies in remote inland areas by medical service plane or helicopter. The trips sometimes generated their own emergencies, since the helicopter pilot was a Vietnam veteran with a need for extreme situations and ready to create them when they didn't come naturally. Other times, in a 24-hour absence he'd fly thousands of miles in a small plane to a point due west and back, to airlift a terminal case from some tiny near-desert settlement like the one where Janette Turner Hospital's new novel is set. One Monday my friend came back from one such dot on the map with what remained of a man who seemed to have been beaten to death, or near it, by more than one person. The victim had been an outsider, someone who'd turned up in town a few months earlier and got a job in the local pub. The story of his accidental fall was corroborated by everyone in the town and made no sense at all of his injuries. The man died, I believe, and that was the end of it. After reading Oyster I remembered this and wondered whether any account of the man's fate reached his friends or family, if he had any.
Oyster is about the strangers and drifters who turn up in such outback places and people them. Outer Maroo is delineated by real geographical co-ordinates and a mass of meteorological and mineralogical data, but doesn't itself appear on the maps. This is not simply a question of its being fictional: its fictional inhabitants have gone to some lengths to erase their town from the records. One of the strangers in the novel is a woman called Miss Rover, a schoolteacher who's been kicked to death and fed to a feral pig for voicing unmentionable truths, but who remains a central presence, a voice and a memory in what follows. Janette Turner Hospital's premise of an outback town where such things might happen is all too-likely, and you wonder why she works so hard at giving verisimilitude to an unlikely plot, piling on the information and following up her story with a bibliography of half a dozen titles.
Outer Maroo is an ordinary drought-stricken outback settlement, socially riven between the boozers and the fundamentalist wowsers, with a history of usurpation and massacre in its relations with the aboriginal Murris. What makes it special, apart from the preternaturally large looming of the Living Word Gospel Hall, is its hidden opal wealth. Four years before the week that constitutes the foreground of the story, a charismatic stranger has walked into town, clad in loose white garments and carrying a rifle. He has curls, a beard, intense and disturbing milky-blue eyes and a golden body. He talks like a religious huckster but the locals are mesmerised by the splendid opals he shows them. Soon they're in business together, mining, polishing, selling. Oyster, the charlatan, runs his opal mine out of town as a millenarian religious commune, importing ingenuous young back-packers as labour. They become his prisoners and slaves. Their cards and letters home never leave town. Small planes fly in secretly from Singapore to remove the gems. The whole community is implicated, from the big graziers to the woman at the store. Everyone is making money, except the back-packers slaving underground, bearing the cult leader's children and doing the things cultists do. In town and at the mine, those who know too much and those who want to leave, die. Outer Maroo writes itself off the map.
It's too good and too bad to last, and three years later, for slightly obscure reasons, Oyster and his back-packers all die underground in an explosion and fire that the cult leader himself may have caused. A year later, a man from Melbourne and a woman from Boston arrive in Outer Maroo looking for their lost children. They meet up with Mercy and Jess, two of the three female witnesses at the centre of the story, and give the final prod that sets off a series of events which culminate in another, and definitive, apocalyptic fire.
In its telling, the story darts about and attitudinises and seems a lot more complex in the early pages than it turns out to be by the end: the outline takes some picking out through the dust kicked up by the author's heels. Sorting out what happened when, and whose sensibilities it's being refracted through, is heavy-going at first, but the bravura display of the early pages, however tiresome, is necessary to establish that Outer Maroo is a Place of the Mind, and ‘all of those who find the place are lost.’ Outer Maroo ‘is thick with coded messages, but the messages are legible only to those who can read the secretive earth’. This requires a tipping of the bush-hat to aboriginal culture, though the Murris have moved out for the duration of the story, apart from Ethel, who ‘sits there, cross-legged in the red dust at the edge of the bora rings, smiling to herself … putting the scattered rocks back where they belong, filling gaps in the circles and centuries’. Oyster makes highly questionable use of the ancient aboriginal communings imputed to the token Ethel over her smoking gidgee leaves. It also entails a great deal of rumination on climate and geography, since ‘this disturbing story is sometimes fragmented and dispersed by shifting filaments of moisture in the upper air, and by variable atmospheric densities, and by rifts in time … the facts may seem to float loose in a sequence of their own devising.’
The trouble with these ruminations is that they get in the way of the story. Early on, Jess the barmaid, whose CV is pure proletarian violence, is starting to make a record of events. She takes up her pen at the height of the climactic blaze that's roasting everyone in town except for her and Ethel and an old opal miner. A tiny group, fate unknown behind the smoke, is making a dash for Brisbane and freedom in a stolen Land Rover. This is major drama. A change of wind and our threesome in town may be incinerated too. And what does the eager reader get? Jess's untimely meditations on the art of fiction:
I write because what else is there to do? I write against time. I write against the whim of the fire. If the flames pass over us, I would like a record at least, to survive. This is a sort of primitive magic I'm engaged in, I recognise that, and I'm well aware that whatever I get written won't last as long as the bora rings, but at least it will huddle safely under Cretaceous layers older than the first firestick … perhaps my writing will be stranger than runes.
After further reflections on the nature of time and history (‘time does not run in a straight line and never has. It is a capillary system, mapped outwards from whichever pulse point the observer occupies’)—while the corrupted population of Outer Maroo is being devoured by the flames—Jess lays down her pen and leaps into the opal miner's cot with him, ‘everything a blur of skin, legs, cock, cunt, breasts, buttocks … we feast on each other.’ Her mind, however, is already on other things: ‘Beginnings astonish me, the way they can rise out of ashes; and as for histories of lovers, they're outrageous. They're like folk tales, they're like fantasies, with the embarkation points of the two protagonists so often incongruous and the crossing of their paths so random; not to mention the question of their ruthlessness …’ Jess, like Mercy and Miss Rover, is an incorrigible conceptualiser. Their habit of cerebration is sometimes what gets them into trouble, but mostly they just rabbit on and on for the sake of it, their thoughts indistinguishable from the author's. You soon feel that cerebration is the point, and the whole rather silly affair of the cult and the opals and the tyranny of silence and the dozens of people burnt alive is a pretext for a string of aperçus. Pulled between the story's violence and its obtrusive recording consciousness, Oyster wants to have it both ways. It reads like an awful lot of other novels, the award-winning kind, of the last decade or so. Joan Didion floats into view—her manner, if not her anorexic vigour.
Roasted people are a substantial novelty in Turner Hospital's writing. Oyster bears the marks of a radical discontent, a resolve to break out of the writers' workshop ghetto, to cut loose from sensitive souls with time on their hands, to lift off through the realm of the minor award into the mainstream and maybe a major motion picture. In a big, gutsy way Turner Hospital has struck out beyond the black stump for an international readership and taken on the brutal man's world of the Australian outback, its open spaces and closed minds—all colour, movement and apocalyptic fire. With its sinister stranger in town, Oyster is a throwback to the American Western. The scene is very film-set Western, too: the single dusty street with the store, the pub and the Gospel Hall facing off and everyone always on hand for the key showdowns.
The cast makes sense as action movie material. There's nothing open-ended about these neatly tied bundles of attributes. Old fossicker Major Miner never appears without a mention of the fall of Singapore, his defining experience, or concerned parent Nick without a reference to growing up Greek in Australia, which is his. The grazier's wife, Dorothy Godwin, is a kleptomaniac, the burnt-out pastor, Charles Given, has lost his faith and his books, the walk-on Pete Burnett is basically a decent bloke, the stepmother Sarah an American Jewish intellectual, the barmaid Jess silent and warmly sturdy. Oyster of the yeasty groin and fluttering white garments is a cipher. Peripheral figures utter a kind of computer-generated demotic and nobody grows or changes or surprises, not even crucial Mercy Given, who's really a double act with her mentor, the ‘transferred’ schoolteacher Susannah Rover. The late Miss Rover exists mainly in Mercy's memory, where her spunky truth-telling seems so arch and knowing that you come to understand why the inhabitants of Outer Maroo did away with her.
Oyster is more about the place than the people, and while a silly story is a silly story, the determination to get down something of the look and the feel of Outer Maroo is more than a cinematic come-on. The anxiety lurking behind the showing-off and the millennial flourishes in this book has been around ever since Australian writing started taking itself seriously, at least since Patrick White announced his intention to ‘people the great Australian emptiness’ with his works. The writer's fear seems to be that in and for themselves these places and these people lack interest—that only an ungainly effort of the will can turn this matter into respectable fiction. Whence the great kitsch structures of White's novels of the Fifties and early Sixties, those parts of his books that now seem so dated and inessential, the dragging-in of religion and spirituality to give ‘meaning’. Something similar happened with the painters, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, plonking allegorical figures in their Australian bush, inventing mythologies; but they managed it more lightly and more wittily than the writers. Turner Hospital's own anxieties in Oyster seem to lie closer to the surface. Outer Maroo is as assertively ‘real’ as its R. M. Williams boots, its Fourex beer and Toyota 4WDs. What it might be like to live there, however, with the drought, the heat and the isolation, but without cult deaths, dirty money and imported hysteria, is an order of reality quite missing here.
Turner Hospital is the author of forty-odd short, sharp and shapely stories, a lot of them set in the unpromising terrain of the anglophone university network of conferences, visiting professorships, and writer's residencies, especially in Canada, where she now lives for much of the time. They work the vein of memory, displacement, nostalgia, jolted by brief encounters and tiny unsettling experiences. Many adhere closely to the known facts of Turner Hospital's career. The voice in these stories is assured, at home in its limited milieu of faculty angst, and they have the great strength of achieving their effects in a brief compass. Reading them after Oyster makes you thankful that Jane Austen, hitting her limits in Mansfield Park, never decided to go for broke with an epic of slavery, sex and religion on Sir Thomas's Antiguan plantations.
Carolyn Bliss (review date Autumn 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695
SOURCE: A review of Oyster, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, p. 861.
[In the following review of Oyster, Bliss finds fault in the novel's melodramatic plot and trite forebodings.]
Australian-born writer Janette Turner Hospital's sixth and latest novel [Oyster] is an old-fashioned page-turner which offers up an intriguing mystery but finally fails to deliver either the anticipated shocks or revelations. Set in the Queensland outback village of Outer Maroo, a settlement so deliberately off the map that “anyone who finds this place is lost,” the novel concerns the doomsday cult of a self-styled and shady messiah named Oyster and the effect of his communal opal-mining enterprise on the initially bemused but increasingly uneasy townspeople. In this place where people go to be nowhere—to be out of reach of loved ones, the law, and the government—Oyster and his wide-eyed groupies at first seem to belong as naturally as the perennial drought and the suffocating smell of death which accompanies it. But Oyster and his operations begin to pose a series of threats, especially as his community threatens to outnumber that of Outer Maroo. Finally, something must be done by someone. But by whom? Was the catastrophe precipitated by nervous economic interests within the opal-mining industry or its back-alley adjuncts? By disgruntled or terrified townspeople? By Oyster's rivals for spiritual authority among the leaders of what passes for orthodox religion in the town? Or was it perhaps Oyster himself, nudging the chosen few in the direction of the promised land? These questions, and their accompanying issues of culpability, are revisited with dangerous insistence by two newcomers—relatives of long-missing members of Oyster's cult—who arrive demanding answers. In confronting them, the town must of course confront its dark complicity in Oyster's designs.
Many of these themes will be familiar to readers of Hospital. The issue of moral responsibility has consumed her since her first, award-winning novel, The Ivory Swing. The combination of this concern with pronounced plotline and elements of the mystery-thriller genre will be remembered from Borderline, as will the preference for bestowing allegorical names on central female characters. In Borderline it was Felicity; in Oyster it is Mercy Given, who naturally survives the Jonestown (or is it Waco?) style holocaust at Oyster's camp. Finally, the theme of chronologically and geographically displaced people searching for where home might be and what it might demand of them recalls the stories of Dislocations, as well as much of Hospital's other work. Stylistic markers from Hospital's earlier texts are present as well. Examples are the use of the extended conceit and experimentation with point of view, which emerges here as an uneasy and unpredictable shifting between first and third persons.
Autobiographical echoes can also be heard. Of course, a woman who sees herself as a reluctant nomad and who divides her time among North America, Europe, and Australia would be preoccupied with issues of belonging and its costs. Of course, a woman who had been mugged at knife point would take note of ad hoc violence and the omnipresence of evil.
Finally, however, Oyster seems weakened by too much melodrama and too banal a message. As evidence of melodrama, let me cite the death of Susannah Rover, roving, noisy, and worst of all nosy schoolteacher imported from outside, who is kicked to death and thrown down a mine shaft where her corpse can be consumed by a feral pig, trapped there for the purpose. As evidence that the message is at least too broad and entirely unsurprising, let me quote the character who articulates it. Near the end of the novel, Sarah (mother of dead cult member Amy) reflects, “Extremism is everywhere. … There's no safe place.” Dutifully, the novel demonstrates extremism in faith and faithlessness, love and hate, selfishness and self-sacrifice, greed and generosity, weather, environment, and character.
Perhaps as millennial fervor heats up, a fervor sometimes not unlike Oyster's, we need to hear this sort of warning. I doubt, however, that Oyster is its most effective vehicle. Read the novel for its evocation of an unforgettable place and for its compelling story. Don't read it for its insights on human nature or religion run amok.