The Dark Art of Janette Turner Hospital

Janette Turner Hospital is returning to the Wheeler Centre to talk about her latest novel, The Claimant, with Ramona Koval, at a literary morning tea on Wednesday 21 May.

The Claimant revolves around the real-life case of the search for the heir to the Vanderbilt fortune - and explores the elusive nature of identity, in an absorbing novel that ranges from rural Queensland to New York high society. In 1996 a court case was launched in New York that drew enormous media attention. Its aim was to establish if the long-presumed dead son of the Vanderbilt family was in fact living incognito as a cattle farmer in Queensland.

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case shares her passion for the writing of Janette Turner Hospital, reflecting on her previous body of work and her observations about how her early life has shaped her as a writer.

Janette Turner Hospital has lived in parallel worlds for most of her life. Born in Melbourne, she moved to Queensland, where she was raised, at an early age. Hers was a cloistered fundamentalist Christian family. At home, ‘where just about everything was forbidden’, there was no television or radio, but instead, nightly Bible readings.

At school, she found it hard to adjust to the outside world. ‘There was a full range of vocabulary I knew nothing about, so I felt like an alien. From my earliest days at school I had to become a very acute observer to figure out how to behave and fit in. So I guess that set the pattern for my life.’

That early outsider’s status, coupled with the ability to move between very different worlds and learn the language and social codes of each, seems like the perfect writer’s toolkit.

‘The rule for living in two worlds is to keep things separate, because everything you need to know to function in one world is counterproductive to survival in the other, and vice versa,’ muses one of her characters, Mishka, from her latest novel, Orpheus Lost (2007).

Outsiders who move between worlds recur often in Turner Hospital’s eight novels and three short-story collections. Her characters are always watching, taking mental notes.

In Orpheus Lost, Turner Hospital marries the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with the horrors of rendition and Abu Ghraib; Mishka is drawn into the world of Islamic fundamentalists. In a neat reversal of the myth, it is up to his lover, Leela, to somehow rescue him from his underground prison. In Due Preparations from the Plague (2003), another literary thriller with political and terrorist themes, the main character, Lowell, is set on a posthumous quest into his CIA agent father’s dark past, accessing his father’s shadow life.

Turner Hospital has lived all over the world with her husband, academic Clifford Hospital, including India, Canada, France and the United States. All these settings have found their way into her novels – though it is Queensland (where ‘psychically, I feel at home’) that most often works its way through.

The Last Magician (1992) is, to my mind, her masterpiece. Along with Oyster (1996), about a religious cult in outback Queensland, it is her most Australian novel. A mystery wrapped in a riddle, folded into an enigma: that’s The Last Magician.

At its core is a dark secret shared by four childhood friends: two misfits (Charlie, the son of Chinese emigrants, and wild girl Cat) and two golden-haired children of the elite (closet rebel Catherine and conformist Robbie). They are bound by secret trauma – and joy. We see events mostly through the eyes of brilliant Lucy, a former university student now working a double life as a barmaid (downstairs) and a prostitute (upstairs) at Charlie’s Sydney pub.

There are secrets, unexpected connections and missing people everywhere; Lucy is our guide between the parallel worlds of the upper and under classes and Charlie’s bar is where they mix. Charlie, an artist and photographer, offers clues through his work. Turner Hospital’s fascinating descriptions of his films and photographs evoke those of fellow literary-mystery writer Siri Hustvedt, in her wonderful novel of artists in New York, What I Loved.

‘Charlie believed the world was thick with messages, you could hardly move for secret codes in Charlie’s world,’ reflects Lucy, who is drawn into Charlie’s obsessions. Turner Hospital’s fiction is rife with codes for the reader to unfurl; they leave room, too, for multiple interpretations, just as life does.

Those codes include literary and artistic references: Dante’s Inferno is central to The Last Magician, as the Orpheus myth is to Orpheus Lost; Due Preparations for the Plague is Turner Hospital’s Decameron; one of the stories in her latest book, Forecast: Turbulence (2011) takes its title (and central idea), ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman’, from King Lear. She says this is partly due to her Christian upbringing (‘where everything had allegorical meaning’) and partly to her MA in Medieval Studies (medievalists ‘saw allegory everywhere’ too). ‘It just seems to happen willy-nilly with me, because I got used to seeing the world that way.’

One of the joys of reading Turner Hospital is the intellectual adventure: the way she draws on art and literature and politics, bringing them together in conversation with each other – and dramatising them with intricately imagined characters.

‘In the Sunshine State, we resist shadow. We don’t believe in darkness,’ writes Turner Hospital in ‘Moon River’, the memoir-essay that closes Forecast Turbulence. Her tongue, of course, is planted firmly in her cheek. She gives a more pointed, poetic version of her Queensland in The Last Magician: ‘The rainforest smells of seduction and fermentation and death. It smells of Queensland.’

In recent years, Turner Hospital has taken to America’s South as a setting for her fiction, including several stories in Forecast: Turbulence. It appears in Due Preparations for the Plague and is the childhood home of Orpheus Lost’s Leela – whose father is devastated when she ‘crosses over’ to the enemy territory of the north.

‘I joke in South Carolina that I grew up in the state, except it was in Australia,’ Turner Hospital says. South Carolina reminds her of Queensland in many ways, including the climate, the politics (reminiscent of the Bjelke-Peterson era) and the racial divide. The prevalence of fundamentalist Christianity (‘a phenomenon’) in America’s South also reminded her of Queensland, and the fundamentalist community of her youth.

In Forecast: Turbulence, the two worlds come together in one story. In ‘Republic of Outer Barcoo’, a teenage girl guards the office of her father’s declared outback republic (based on the potent combination of guns and religion) and encounters a handsome Hugh Jackman type who offers the possibility of escape. It’s an intriguing literal juxtaposition of the American South with rural Queensland: the girl and her father have fled Georgia, then Texas in Waco-style shoot-outs – and ended up here, where they’ve attracted local members. ‘I’m all for secession,’ says the Hugh Jackman type. ‘I’ve signed up for the militia.’

The collection is rich with Turner Hospital’s hallmarks: obsession, absences, dreams so vivid they blur the boundaries with real life, people who are not what they seem. Perhaps it’s that last one that is most potent. Sometimes, the unknown is benign, even healing, as when sons find secret reserves of affection in their fathers (which happens more than once in Hospital’s fiction). But there is also the potential for horror. The charming, attentive drama teacher is a paedophile. The bland next-door neighbour at the Hamptons summer house is a serial killer. A persistent ex-employer invades a man’s fantasy life in the most torturous way possible.

‘There are many things people don’t know that they know,’ says Lucy in The Last Magician. This idea pops up in Forecast: Turbulence, too. ‘I didn’t realise I knew,’ says Katie, the daughter of the paedophile, ‘Not until afterwards. Then I realised I did know.’

In her storytelling, Turner Hospital confronts us with some of that knowledge we would prefer – as individuals and as a society – to block out.

Yet she is hopeful, too, as she has reiterated to interviewers over the years.

‘Every short story, every novel ends with the belief that there is a path out of there, you just have to find it,’ she told the Australian’s Stephen Romei recently. ‘It’s just what I insist on believing in, otherwise life is too dark.’

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