1988, 345 p
I hadn’t heard of this book at all, although I’ve read several of Janette Turner Hospital’s books previously (see here and here for reviews). It was written in 1988 which is, after all, quite some time ago, and was included in the New York Times Book Review‘s fifty most notable novels of 1988. It was long-listed for the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, the Banjo and the Adelaide Festival National Fiction Awards.
Stripped back to its bare bones, it’s the story of a rather lecherous Canadian university lecturer in physics, Koenig, who embarks on a relationship with a young student who, between bouts of frantic and sweaty lovemaking, regales him with stories of her search for her father and her unconventional mother. The stories distract Koenig from his own woes about his wife’s breakdown, the end of his marriage and his son’s conversion to the Moonies.
That’s the simple version. It’s also a riff on Scheharazade, story-telling and truth. It’s all a bit contrived: we have the rather twee twist on ‘Charade’ as the young student’s name. Add to this some rather laboured complications of physics and the uncertainty principle. Hence we have Bea, her mother, or ‘B’ (as in the B-narrative) and Kay, her ‘aunt’ (as in K, the symbol for constant value in physics), Nicholas Truman (true-man) and the mysterious Verity.
It’s not an easy book, and I very nearly abandoned it after Part I. But just at that point, either it improved or I succumbed to it, and I’m glad that I did. As a reader, you have to tolerate leaps between the frame story and flashbacks, and to have one story immediately contradicted by an alternate story. At this point, you just have to hold on and trust Turner Hospital that she’s going to hold it all together- and she does, largely.
I could have done without all the physics, which nearly tipped me over the edge. There are elements of this book that she repeats in later work (looking for lost parents; mobility and dislocation; the Queensland setting; bohemianism etc) and I think that she has become more refined and controlled in her writing over the decades. But the book is worth persevering with, and is a satisfying read as you reach the end. The word ‘virtuoso’ is often used to describe her work and it’s apposite: she flies high and takes risks. It’s exhilarating, but not comfortable.
Posted to the Australian Women Writers challenge site as surely my final contribution for the year!