Janette Turner Hospital

Janette Turner Hospital is currently living in Herstmonceaux Castle, the British campus of Queen’s University in Canada. Her novels include The Last Magician.

Hybrid Heroes

Janette Turner Hospital, 12 December 1996

Almost forty years after the first European settlers pitched their tents at Sydney Cove, two men spend the night in a bush hut beside a creek on the inland side of the coastal range. Between sleeping and dreaming, the men talk intermittently until dawn. One of them, Michael Adair, is an officer in the penal colony’s regimental corps, and has just spent 48 hours in the saddle, riding up from the coast at the express orders of the Governor of New South Wales in order to oversee the hanging of the other man at dawn. The prisoner, Daniel Carney, guarded by the three troopers who captured him, is an escaped convict turned bushranger, the last man of the legendary Dolan gang whose other four members were gunned down nine days earlier. There has been no trial. In order to avoid any possible stirring of Irish anger or rebellion, Carney has been sentenced by Government House fiat to a swift death, in secrecy. Both executioner and condemned man are Irish.

Winterlude

Janette Turner Hospital, 1 August 1996

Love of fat men. Ulli would like to go and see a film with this title. She would buy herself a fistful of Panda liquorice and a daytime ticket and sit there and watch it through again and again, until the usherette sent for the manager … She thinks of a man who was in a promising way to be fat one day. For now he makes do with a curve of the jowl, a faint trace that time will roll out in flesh. Around his lips there is a gloss of oil. He has always just finished eating spaghetti. And not cheap dried macaroni either. He has a pasta machine in his kitchen. He strips off long ribbons of slippery translucent dough and coats them in virgin green olive oil and eats them just as they are.

Contaminated

Janette Turner Hospital, 18 July 1996

‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ Melissa Green’s mother says to her nonchalantly on the subject of having babies. ‘The doctors will be there and they’ll put you to sleep. I almost miscarried with you. The doctor wanted me to stay in bed, but I didn’t and you were born just the same.’ Melissa, on the verge of puberty, baffled by and anxious about certain bodily changes, is neither greatly enlightened nor particularly reassured by this information, but her mother, in the time-honoured patchwork mode of ellipses, imprecision and embarrassment, barrels on regardless with the lecture on birds and bees. The one thing Melissa is spared is euphemism.

Grand Gestures

Janette Turner Hospital, 25 May 1995

There is something about a millennium, something about the clicking-over of zeros on the odometer of history that sends a frowsy doomsday swell welling up from under. Good round numbers beget both end-of-an-age unease and unreasonable hopes. They breed signs and wonders. They inspire large gestures towards New Beginnings.

In the Ice-Box

Janette Turner Hospital, 12 January 1995

If language speaks us, as Lacan claimed, and as Aron – the young protagonist of The Book of Intimate Grammar – senses intuitively, then our thoughts are trapped in hand-me-down forms and even the act of investigating and naming the self is both arbitrary and suspect. A lost language would mean a misplaced self; and indeed, Aron has caught a fleeting and provocative glimpse of a shadow father behind the father he knows, a lithe and animated Papa who is telling a joke in the Polish forbidden by Mama, and who is attached like a vibrant ghost to the sad overweight present-day Papa, the one who protests forlornly: ‘But there are some things I can only say in Polish.’ And if Papa-as-he-used-to-be has been lost in translation, in what voice can Aron’s disturbing ideas about himself, and about the family and the society around him, speak themselves? Clearly he will need to concoct a whole new grammar, private and subversive. But then who will understand his secret syntax?’

Private Nutshells

Janette Turner Hospital, 4 August 1994

There is something unsettling, something quietly provocative of inner debate, about Candia McWilliam’s titles, of which, so far, there are only three. They are attached to slim works that occupy the borderlands between novella and novel, between meditation and narrative, between ScotsLit and literature for which a national tag is irrelevant. And this in itself is unsettling: that a reputation of such substance and brilliance, and so elusive of categorisation, should spring from so few pages and from someone not yet forty years old.

Body Maps

Janette Turner Hospital, 7 April 1994

‘It’s not so easy, just living a life,’ says the unnamed female narrator of ‘Living at Home’, second of the three novellas that make up this collection. The narrator is a psychiatrist who works with autistic children, lives with a man who is mostly away, and copes with a mother who is sliding gently into senility. ‘Going through my mother’s decline,’ the narrator says, ‘simply widened the scope of what I’d guessed at all along, what I seemed to be born knowing … the extreme difficulty in managing the details of ordinary life.’…

How to make seal-flipper pie

Janette Turner Hospital, 10 February 1994

‘The land God gave to Cain’ was how Jacques Cartier, sailing under patronage of the French king in 1534, described what came to be Canada’s province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Cain is exactly the kind of character who interests Annie Proulx, and Cain’s home turf is the natural setting for her fiction. Cain more or less shows up, under the name of Loyal Blood, as the protagonist of her first novel Postcards. (Blood is a Vermont dairy farmer who accidentally kills his girlfriend and has to spend the rest of his life on the lam, keeping in tenuous touch with his hard-scrabble family by sending postcards.) The land God gave to Cain is the site of Proulx’s second novel, The Shipping News.

Letter

Terra Nullius

12 December 1996

As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with my novels, short stories and articles knows very well, I am indeed aware of what Gordon Kerry (Letters, 23 January) describes as ‘the old legal fiction of “terra nullius" ’ and of the long overdue changes to that Eurocentric doctrine that were signalled by the 1992 High Court ruling on Mabo v. Queensland. In Queensland, home to both...

Roasted

Peter Robb, 6 March 1997

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...

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Sydney’s Inferno

Jonathan Coe, 24 September 1992

Mess is one of the distinguishing features of Janette Turner Hospital’s writing, but also one of its abiding themes: and part of the reader’s difficulty has always been to decide how...

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