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December 12, 2007

Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital

Last month I read Janette Turner Hospital’s new novel Orpheus Lost, and have followed up with a “critical duet” of sorts with Steven W. Beattie at The Shakespeherian Rag. I enjoyed the book a great deal, Steven did less so, and what results is a pretty interesting dialogue, I think. I will post the beginning, and then you can follow the link over to read the rest.

Kerry Clare:
I’d never read anything by Janette Turner Hospital before, and she definitely surprised me. I was aware that she is as American as she is Canadian, and that she is Australian first and foremost, but somehow I still expected her work to be representative of the sort of fiction Canada’s female writers seem to write best. The sort of fiction that I like best for that matter, of kitchens and caves, mothers, daughters, and divining.

The premise of Orpheus Lost would suggest otherwise though, wouldn’t it? This story of Leela, who studies the mathematics of music and falls in love with Mishka in the subway as he plays Gluck’s “Che farò senza Euridice” on his violin. Mishka, whose strange disappearances begin to coincide with terrorist attacks in Boston. Soon Leela is snatched off the street on her way home and taken to an interrogation centre where she is confronted by Cobb, a figure from her past, and questions of Mishka being a terrorist.

Thrills and chills, international crime and intrigue. What a treat, I discovered quickly. To read a plot-driven book for once, and have it be so good. To be unable to stop turning the pages until I’d reached the end. I was choking on my heart a number of times, and one day this book extended my lunch break by an extra half-hour. There was no other way.

I do love it when literary fiction manages to surmount the limits of “genre.” To borrow the best of other genres, using it to great advantage. And indeed Turner Hospital does sufficient borrowing here — with the Greek allusions, musical references, spy plots, and romance. Orpheus Lost is a veritable stew, but reads quite originally, all its ingredients measured.

I found the story throughout quite compelling, but Turner Hospital’s depiction of the Australian rainforest was striking in particular. Of course the rainforest is a place that lends itself to story, and Turner Hospital properly invests it with elements of the fantastic, but that somewhere so unknown to me could emerge so vividly is still a testament to her achievements. Conversely the story lagged just a bit for me with Leela’s backstory, which takes place in a small Southern town I felt I’d read about already.

Leela and Mishka’s relationship was hard to understand at first, though with two such eccentric characters, this is unsurprising. Some of the woodenness of their dialogue is easily attributed to the fact that they’re both so unconventional, and so too would be their romance. Words are neither of their fortes. Turner Hospital conveys their respective passions (math and music) well, and also marries them together. Though not so easily — nothing is easy here, and I respect that. The Orpheus story never exactly matches this modern version, piece for piece. Many characters do remain insoluble equations.

So I could continue here, picking the pieces of Orpheus Lost apart, but I will conclude now instead by stating this book is much more interesting as a whole than these pieces are in isolation. That Orpheus Lost is altogether riveting and well-orchestrated, and that it works. Or at least it worked for me.

How about you?


Steven W. Beattie: I’m going to be the dissenting voice here. Orpheus Lost was, for me, a major disappointment… Read the rest.

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