Ten or so years ago I stayed with a friend who was a senior doctor in Queensland’s largest hospital, the Royal Brisbane. Most weekends he was on call to attend emergencies in remote inland areas by medical service plane or helicopter. The trips sometimes generated their own emergencies, since the helicopter pilot was a Vietnam veteran with a need for extreme situations and ready to create them when they didn’t come naturally. Other times, in a 24-hour absence he’d fly thousands of miles in a small plane to a point due west and back, to airlift a terminal case from some tiny near-desert settlement like the one where Janette Turner Hospital’s new novel is set. One Monday my friend came back from one such dot on the map with what remained of a man who seemed to have been beaten to death, or near it, by more than one person. The victim had been an outsider, someone who’d turned up in town a few months earlier and got a job in the local pub. The story of his accidental fall was corroborated by everyone in the town and made no sense at all of his injuries. The man died, I believe, and that was the end of it. After reading Oyster I remembered this and wondered whether any account of the man’s fate reached his friends or family, if he had any.
Vol. 19 No. 11 · 5 June 1997
One consequence of my migratory flight paths and seasonal residences is that my mail trails a country or two behind, and catches up with me late, in redirected clusters; thus, in May, in Florence, I have just seen the March issue of LRB. Imagine my surprise to find that a letter I had written in, and sent from, London had been re-routed, and declared to have come from the vague vastness of Ontario. Apparently, the editors, like Peter Robb, the reviewer to whom my novel, Oyster, was assigned (LRB, 6 March), are smugly certain that they know my place better than I do, and cannot control their urge to put me in it.
The geographical ignorance, wittily commented on by Canadian readers, may be simply a matter of wide editorial latitude. But what can one make of the foggy climes in which Robb moves? It would be difficult to take as other than parodic his out-of-date Sunday-supplement level of acquaintanceship with Australian writers and painters, were it not for the awful suspicion that Robb takes himself very seriously indeed. What can one say of a reviewer who claims to be an authority on outback Queensland on the basis of having a friend who has been there? Gosh. I’ll bet he’s even got a friend who’s read a novel or two since Jane Austen, though he needs another who can slip him some potted journalists’ paragraphs, pitched to his level, on Proust, say, and Joyce, and a few others who so mistakenly thought that mythmaking, and explorations into the nature of time and memory, were the province of the novel. What scope, as yet unexplored, for Mr Robb to thump his little pulpit and preach his earnest and ridiculous sermons.
Janette Turner Hospital
Florence, London, etc