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Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus lost (Mini-review)

April 8, 2017

Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus lostLast year I did a mini-review of Elizabeth Jolley’s An innocent gentleman using some scrappy notes from when I read the book long before blogging. This post on Janette Turner Hospital’s Orpheus lost has similar origins. I’m keen to add it here because I’ve read several of her novels, but none since blogging, and I really want her represented here.

Orpheus lost commences in Boston and is about Leela, a mathematician from the South, and the Australian musician, Mishka the subway-playing violinist, whom she meets.  They become lovers, until suddenly, after a subway explosion in which terrorism is suspected, Leela is taken to an interrogation centre where an old friend Cobb tells her that Mishka isn’t who she thinks he is. Meanwhile, Mishka is looking for his missing father, and heads off to the Middle East. The scene is set for what becomes, in fact, a literary thriller.

In a conversation* with Jason Steger on The Age online book club, Hospital said she had no political agenda but was interested in how people emotionally handle the shock of being randomly caught up in political action, and in what moral decisions they make. In other words, she’s interested in the moral and emotional repercussions of what happens when people get caught up because what they do looks dangerous but actually isn’t. (This is similar, in fact, to what happens in Richard Flanagan’s The unknown terrorist). It’s nightmarish stuff. Hospital talked about the trading of civil liberties for safety in the post-9/11 world, something she sees as a dangerous response. It makes it rather relevant still today doesn’t it?

However, she also talked about Orpheus and Eurydice being one of the great love stories of all time, and suggested that it is as much about loss, grief and yearning, as it is about love. But she was tired, she said, of the women always being the rescued ones. So she decided to give it a feminist twist and invert it. Consequently, in Orpheus lost, the man’s the one snatched away, and she’s the rescuer. Now that’s surely political!

The novel is a multiple-point-of-view novel and opens with Leela’s voice. We learn that she is fascinated by maths (numbers) and on the second page she quotes a seventeenth century mathematician saying ‘Obsession….is its own heaven and hell’. This theory is played out in the novel. The three main protagonists all have obsessions: Leela is obsessed with maths (which she believes always provides an answer to things) and with Mishka; Mishka is obsessed with music and with his identity (which involves his missing ‘father’); and Cobb is obsessed with Leela. There are other obsessions in the novel, though, too – the Islamic fundamentalists, Leela’s father with his religious fundamentalism, and other obsessive musicians and mathematicians.

Into this world of obsessed people, comes terror – and alongside terror, as we all know only too well, is the desperation for safety. Safety is a constant issue throughout the book. For example Cobb describes two types of people – those who take safety for granted and those who know it’s a precious thing. He suggests that the former create risks for the latter.

Unfortunately, I seem not to have the book anymore – which is unusual for me. Perhaps I’d borrowed it! So what I want to focus on is my experience of reading Hospital, rather than on the plot. She’s one of our more structured or tightly-styled writers. This means that I read her with my head as much as with my heart because she always has a lot going on. There is, for example, her strong use of recurring motifs and metaphors, such as, in this novel, photographs. They play several roles: they represent love, connections between people, surveillance, evidence, and the idea of truth vs fiction. I enjoy teasing out these sorts of things. Music and maths are other significant motifs. For some readers, and for me on occasions, Hospital can push her metaphors too hard but I thought they worked here.

And then, alongside multiple points of view and these recurring motifs and metaphors, there are structural devices, such as her use of parallels to set up points of likeness and tension between her characters. The three main protagonists all lost a parent early (Cobb and Leela their mothers, and Mishka never knew his father); Cobb and Leela both have ‘damaged’ fathers; the main characters all have small town upbringings in ‘odd’ places (the Deep South in a town called Promised Land, and the Daintree which is described as ‘the promised land’). The whole idea of “promised lands” is rich for exploration in our modern world of nationhoods!

Anyhow, to conclude this mini-review, lessons are learnt in the novel. Cobb, who initially wants to make Leela fear, comes to regret his actions. And Leela, who has to confront the reality of fear, also learns that random events which you can’t always control do occur. Steger says the book is about redemption – but, despite what Hospital says, I can’t help thinking it is also about politics. Like most of her novels, it’s challenging to read, because she’s a writer who extends, probes and pushes – occasionally, perhaps, a little too much – but that, to me, makes her always worth reading.

Bill (The Australian Legend)‘s review will fill you in nicely on more of the details.

aww2017 badgeJanette Turner Hospital
Orpheus lost
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2007

* I couldn’t get the actual conversation to load when I checked this old link, but I’m adding it here in case it was just a temporary gremlin.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2017 6:35 pm

    Gosh, I think you must have taken very good notes indeed, this is an excellent review. I remember reading this one, probably not long after it was released because it was a book club choice and the topic of civil liberties was a lively one although the protagonists lined up on political grounds as I expected them to!

    • April 8, 2017 7:06 pm

      Haha, thanks Lisa. I have a little document where I used to make notes on books that I felt inspired to write up in some way and this was one of those books. I think I must have done it for a reading group too. I have about 4l of her books in my bookcase but not this one. It was interesting reading my notes given what’s happened in the ensuing 10 years since it was published. The book would not, I suspect, feel dated!

      • April 8, 2017 9:08 pm

        My recollection is that people were very worried about civil liberties then but seem to have lost interest now….

        • April 8, 2017 9:35 pm

          Yes, they were, as I recollect too. I think some interest still pops up but my the situation is complex.

        • April 8, 2017 10:23 pm

          Yes, recent events here and overseas are really tragic. It’s the lack of predictability that is so alarming…

        • April 9, 2017 12:13 am

          It sure is. I guess that’s what terrorism is. It’s hard to know where it’s going to end.

  2. April 9, 2017 3:32 am

    I really should get into the habit of taking better notes than I do but I dont like interrupting the flow of reading to get out a pen and paper…..
    How odd that surname is – Hospital is one I’ve never heard of before

    • April 9, 2017 9:24 am

      It does slow reading down, even just notation in books that I do now, Karen. But those notes were made after reading in my pre-blogging days. Occasionally I’d feel inspired to put thoughts together and I had a Word document where I did just that. I might share a few more over the years if I think they’re sensible enough after all this time!

      Yes, it’s an unforgettable name isn’t it?

  3. April 10, 2017 4:09 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful review, Sue! Astonishing that you could pull this off so well so long after reading it and without a copy… I think it might be sitting in my bookcase of books yet to be read – I’ll certainly search for it now.

    • April 10, 2017 5:15 pm

      Thanks Annette. I guess this is one of the reasons I take so long to read books! I take too many notes. Without them I’d be lost. Anyhow, if you ever read it I’ve be interested in your opinion of course.

  4. April 13, 2017 2:29 am

    Sounds like an interesting an highly relevant book. You must take some really good notes to be able to write with so much detail about a book you read long ago! I’m impressed!

  5. April 14, 2017 3:35 am

    I think your review without the book might be better than mine when I had the book in my hand. And yes, definitely political, and as urgently relevant today as it was a decade ago.

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