Janette Turner Hospital Hospital, Janette Turner - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

John Bemrose (review date 6 March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Valerie Miner (review date 23 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Edith Pearlman (review date October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nancy Engbretsen Schaumburger (review date Winter 1991-92)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Janette Turner Hospital with Missy Daniel (interview date 14 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 20 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Coe (review date 24 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Diane Turbide (review date 5 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Louis K. MacKendrick (review date Winter 1992-93)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Erin McGraw (review date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nancy Engbretsen Schaumburger (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 29 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ray Willbands (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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David Callahan (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Selina Samuels (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ruth Brandon (review date 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Robb (review date 6 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carolyn Bliss (review date Autumn 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 341 words.)