Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital (Australia May 2007; USA Canada October 2007):
I’ve always been intensely interested in examining ordinary human beings, people without political agendas, who are suddenly caught up in the fist of history and crisis. If someone happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, what happens to their lives from that point onwards? How do they negotiate life, history, politics thereafter?
I suppose I can trace the birth of this intense interest to something that happened to me when we were living in a village in South India in 1977. I was with my two young children in an exceedingly ramshackle taxi heading from the village to the city market in Trivandrum. It was a time of political upheaval in India. Riots broke out, and suddenly our taxi was surrounded by a mob waving the banners of the Communist Party of South India. The taxi could not move forward. Our taxi driver was very frightened and was trembling violently. The rioters were drumming on the taxi roof and windows. The children and I were in the back seat and I felt that weird and absolute calm which is actually shock. I had an arm around each child and can still vividly remember the two dominant thoughts in my head: 1) I must make the children feel safe with me and 2) No one will ever know what happened to us. In fact, the tense situation only lasted a few minutes and then the crowd let the taxi move slowly forward. Since then, I’ve been aware of how suddenly and how randomly political events of which one is only dimly aware can disrupt a life.
This has to be in my top three best reads of 2007! Set in Boston, South Carolina, the Daintree and Iraq, this amazing novel, frightening in its diagnosis of our times and magical in its evocation of both music and ancient myth, will not let you go. The Australian asked twenty-five people — not professional reviewers — to preview the novel back in May 2007; the majority share my enthusiasm. For example, Janet Rutherford from Tasmania:
In this age of terrorism, world distrust and countless wars, I found Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital an absorbing read. The lives of the three main characters are entwined as if by happenstance; Leela and Cobb are childhood soul mates and Mishka a chance meeting on a subway platform. The childhood scenes of Leela and Cobb, at times, have an almost science fiction feel mixed with an Amish like life. Leela’s father’s obsession with numbers, in relation to biblical meaning, is an interesting balance to Leela and Cobb’s talent for maths.
I found the interrogation descriptions engrossing – especially with the David Hicks situation so fresh. The Daintree upbringing of Mishka is very atmospheric & I enjoyed pondering on how upbringing affects us all.
I gradually became so absorbed in the book that as I read the final page I was surprised to shed quiet tears.
A few books leave me with the feeling I have dined on a fine meal, and can sit and enjoy the aftertaste; Orpheus Lost is certainly one of these books.
And here are post-9/11 America and Howard’s Australia as future generations will recall them:
“Can’t we report them?” Leela asked.
K. and the tall man laughed. Leela felt light-headed with the heat. The tall man’s laughter rose like a dandelion puff and floated up to the ceiling of the cage.
“Security at detention camps is outsourced,” K. explained.
“No-one’s accountable,” the tall man said. “I’m Kareem, by the way.”
“Leela. How come you have an Australian accent?”
“Because I’m Australian,” Kareem said. “Born here. This is Rasheed. He wasn’t.”
“Rasheed’s stopped talking,” Kareem said. He mouthed a word at them: Depressed. “His brother Abu’s in there. Been there three years now. No charges.”
Here is the essence of all fanaticism:
“Nothing in the Qu’ran forbids music,” Dr Siddiqi explained.
“It is only in hadith, the commentary.”
“Hadith?” Leela repeated.
“Something like midrash in the Jewish tradition. Scholarly commentary. Debate. Hadith is used to argue both sides of the case. I explained this in my seminar, I explained it to Jamil Haddad, but fanatics have no interest in facts. They have no interest in history. They do not understand the evolution of beliefs and customs. For them what is, is, and has always been that way.” Dr Siddiqi sighed heavily. “A student like Jamil Haddad is poison. He can infect a whole class…”
Yes, read it if you can.