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Private Nutshells

Janette TurnerHospital, 4 August 1994

Debatable Land 
by Candia McWilliam.
Bloomsbury, 216 pp., £15.99, June 1994, 0 7475 1708 8
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... fair wage’) advertised in the back of a sailing magazine he’d picked up while waiting at the hospital for Lorna, the nurse he lived with, to finish her shift. The advertisement seemed to Alec to speak of lives ‘unimaginably emancipated, lived between sea and sky’. If there is a principal protagonist other than the sea it is Alec, the painter whose ...


Janette TurnerHospital, 18 July 1996

Colour is the Suffering of Light: A Memoir 
by Melissa Green.
Phoenix, 341 pp., £9.95, April 1996, 1 897580 43 6
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... 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 ...

How to make seal-flipper pie

Janette TurnerHospital, 10 February 1994

The Shipping News 
by E. Annie Proulx.
Fourth Estate, 337 pp., £14.99, November 1993, 9781857022056
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... 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 ...

Hybrid Heroes

Janette TurnerHospital, 12 December 1996

The Conversations at Curlow Creek 
by David Malouf.
Chatto, 214 pp., £14.99, September 1996, 0 7011 6571 5
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... 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 ...


Janette TurnerHospital, 1 August 1996

Talking to the Dead 
by Helen Dunmore.
Viking, 224 pp., £16, July 1996, 0 670 87002 1
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... 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 ...

Grand Gestures

Janette TurnerHospital, 25 May 1995

A River Town 
by Thomas Keneally.
Sceptre, 330 pp., £15.99, March 1995, 9780340610930
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... 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 1900, the year in which Thomas Keneally’s most recent novel situates itself, the separate Australian colonies were reeling from economic depression and the worst drought since European settlement began in 1788 ...

In the Ice-Box

Janette TurnerHospital, 12 January 1995

The Book of Intimate Grammar 
by David Grossman, translated by Betsy Rosenberg.
Cape, 343 pp., £14.99, September 1994, 0 224 03285 2
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... 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 ...

Body Maps

Janette TurnerHospital, 7 April 1994

The Rest of Life 
by Mary Gordon.
Bloomsbury, 257 pp., £15.99, January 1994, 0 7475 1675 8
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... 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 ...


Peter Robb, 6 March 1997

by Janette TurnerHospital.
Virago, 400 pp., £14.99, September 1996, 1 86049 123 5
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... 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 ...

Sydney’s Inferno

Jonathan Coe, 24 September 1992

The Last Magician 
by Janette TurnerHospital et al.
Virago, 352 pp., £14.99, June 1992, 1 85381 325 7
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by George Mackay Brown.
Murray, 232 pp., £14.95, July 1992, 0 7195 5149 8
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... Mess is one of the distinguishing features of Janette TurnerHospital’s writing, but also one of its abiding themes: and part of the reader’s difficulty has always been to decide how much of the mess is intention, and how much miscalculation. The characters in Borderline, her 1985 novel which has many formal similarities with The Last Magician (including an obsession with Dante), are all engaged in transgressing boundaries, whether willingly or not, and the title story of her collection Isobars makes explicit its preoccupation with ‘ideas of order’ imposed upon a messy and shifting reality Lines drawn on a map, she wrote in that story, are ‘talismanic’ and represent ‘the magical thinking of quantitative and rational people ...

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