Novelist-protagonist Anna Wulf, in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), writes: “The function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know—Nigeria, South Africa, the American army, a coal-mining village, coteries in Chelsea, etc. We read to find out what is going on. . .. The novel has become a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness.” Anna goes on to lament the demise of the “philosophical novel”—“a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life.”
Blanche d’Alpuget has written, in Turtle Beach, a journalistic novel, full of the sights, sounds, and smells of post-Vietnam Malaysia and Australia, the political situation of Chinese-Vietnamese boat people, and the racial and religious hatreds of Asians and Europeans alike. She has attempted, but failed, to create a work in which the conflicts are resolved in a morally satisfying way. Even though it succeeds in raising questions and giving information, Turtle Beach simply does not reach the standards of the philosophical novel stipulated by Lessing.
Turtle Beach, first published in Australia in 1981, is the story of Judith Wilkes, a self-satisfied, career-minded Australian journalist who finagles a return to Malaysia. She is assigned to cover the story of the boat people, ten years after she experienced romantic adventure in covering the Chinese-Malay riots in 1969. Almost more important than Judith’s story, her quest and her odyssey, is Malaysia itself. Physically, Malaysia is a world of brilliant greens; of parasites that engulf growing trees and fence posts; of cobras, mongooses, bats; of lizards scratching inside ceilings; of palpable heat and humidity; of giant leatherback turtles coming ashore annually to lay eggs. Culturally, it is a world of conflict among Indian Hindus with their resignation and fatalism, Islamic Malays with their royal power base and misogynistic attitude toward women, and Confucian Chinese with their materialistic pragmatism. Added to these three groups are the old colonial powers, full of racism, elitism, and feelings of superiority. There are also the Vietnamese refugees, the boat people, mostly ethnic Chinese who are not acceptable anywhere in Southeast Asia. The higher diplomatic representatives of these groups grapple with such moral issues at places such as the Selangor Cricket Club—in the company of beautiful women whose houses and children are taken care of by a bevy of “amahs” or native servants.
Thus the story centers not only on Judith but also on Kanan, a purple-black Hindu Tamil, a Ph.D. who teaches history and philosophy at a secondary school and whose sexuality attracts both male and female. Important also are Australian diplomats Ralph Hamilton and Adrian Hobday (the former, head of immigration; the latter, the ambassador to Malaysia). Both are involved in romantic relationships with Vietnamese refugees, Adrian having divorced his wife and married scheming, coquettish, shrewd French-Chinese Minou, who will do anything to get her children and mother out of Vietnam. The relationship that develops between Judith and Minou is the most interesting in the book, for Judith comes to understand her own (and her country’s) bankrupt moral sense—even as Minou lies, schemes, and ridicules Judith. Minou, as an Asian, can manage and even prevail where Europeans are simply mystified. Minou shows films to myriad youngsters in a refugee camp once a week (a place where no other foreigners are allowed); she purchases, and personally delivers by tiny ferry, a gas-powered refrigerator for medicine to another camp, Pulau Bidong, an isolated, fetid island off the eastern coast; she performs the only meaningful act in the book by enabling a boatload of 416 refugees to land without being slaughtered by angry villagers. Her self-sacrifice, her satyagraha, is not lost on Judith, who has grown to love her as a sister and accomplice—even as Minou...
(The entire section is 1682 words.)