Daily Archives: October 31, 2013

‘The Ivory Swing’ by Janette Turner Hospital


1982 (1991 reprint)252 p.

I don’t tend to think of Janette Turner Hospital as an Australian writer. She has lived in Canada and America for many years,  and is claimed in Canada as a Canadian writer- in fact this book won Canada’s $50,000 Seal Award for Best First Novel in 1982.  To be rather petty, even her name doesn’t sound particularly Australian (and it’s not a pseudonym: she married Clifford Hospital in 1965).  She is Melbourne born, and taught in outback schools in Queensland, but moved with her husband to Canada and then America, living at various times in Britain, France and also spent a year in India where her husband undertook study leave.  She’s not particularly part of the Australian writer’s circuit of  literary festivals and writer’s talks, even though she visits Australia frequently in a private capacity.

The Canadian/Indian connection emerges from the pages of this book.  Juliet has married her older, academic husband David partially out of -frustration with the non-commitment offered by her tom-catting lover Jeremy.  With David she shifted to Winston, Ontario as a faculty wife, where she had two children, feeling increasingly oppressed by the small-town life and the weight of expectations of the other faculty matrons.  When David went to India for study purposes, she and the children followed.  Jeremy remains in her consciousness as the road not travelled, always off to the corner as a possible option for another way of living.

In India they encounter the stolidity of patriarchal gender roles and the uncompromising rigidity of the caste system.  In their rented house, Juliet tries to challenge them by including a young servant Prabhakaran as part of her family, and both she and David take an interest (for different motivations) in Yashoda, a beautiful young widow who is at the mercy of her wealthy and tradition-bound brother-in-law Shivaraman Nair.  Juliet’s sister Annie arrives, untrammelled by family and commitments and living the life that Juliet still years for.  Where Juliet and David are wary of blundering in with Western values, Annie is fearless.  All of them, in their various ways, trigger consequences that fall more heavily on others.

This is a very ‘interior’ book, with page after page of internal dialogue as Hospital shifts her attention from one character to another.  I found myself wondering whether I even wanted to be inside these characters’ heads, and the short answer is ‘no’.  The narrative is an insistent voice-over, and as a reader you become so deadened by its drone that when action occurs, you need to stop yourself and re-read to work out what is actually happening.  Hospital’s descriptions of setting are very good and capture well the lassitude and sticky humidity of their environment, and it is mirrored in the pace of the novel as well….slow…very slow.  The imagery of the Ivory Swing is heavy-handed and at times the writing is overwrought.

This was a book-group selection.  One thing about a bookgroup is that you read books that you wouldn’t choose yourself, which can be a good and bad thing.  Many of the books in the CAE catalogue (like this one) are fairly old, which means that they outlast the frenetic marketing merry-go-round of modern bookselling.  I’ve read books that have largely disappeared from bookshops and library shelves (with their rather ruthless culling these days) and been glad to have done so.  But without my sense that I  ‘should’ struggle on with the book as a commitment to my fellow book-clubbers , I probably wouldn’t have finished reading the book. I wouldn’t rush to recommend it.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from:  CAE bookgroup

Read because: it is our October book for bookgroup.  Who chose THIS book, I wonder?

awwbadge_2013This is a book by an Australian woman writer, so I’ll count it towards the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.