Last 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.
* 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.