Janette Turner Hospital

"Orpheus Lost"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 8, 2007)

"I listen to music, I play music, I compose it, I don't do anything else.  I mean, I don't know how.  I'm just no good at anything normal. I don't know how to have coffee with someone."

With symbolism from the Orpheus myth reverberating throughout her novel, Australian author Janette Turner Hospital pulls out all the stops, creating a psychologically intense  study of the relationship between Michael "Mishka" Bartok, a young musician in a PhD program at Harvard University and his lover, Leela-May Moore, a PhD candidate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializing in "the math of music."  Son of Hungarian Jews who are now living in rural Australia, Mishka has been a loner from childhood, gifted as a violinist and singer, and more recently, as a player of the oud, a lute-like instrument from the Middle East.  He has never known his father, knowing only that he is from Lebanon, where he was supposedly an oud-player.  Leela-May Moore is from the tiny town of Promised Land in South Carolina, a brilliant mathematician who is the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who doubles as a handyman.

Read ExcerptWhen Leela meets Mishka for the first time, he is playing his violin and singing in the subway, "the underworld of the Red Line" between Harvard Square and Boston's Park Street Station.  Leela is mesmerized by his playing, instantly struck by the fact that he is oblivious to everything around him.  "He has the eyes of Orpheus at the moment when Eurydice is bitten by the snake," she thinks,  "or perhaps when he has lost her for the second time, when she is pulled back into the underworld, forever beyond reach."

They quickly become lovers, so enrapt by their music and their young love that they are pay little attention to terrorist acts which have occurred in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.  When a suicide bomber attacks the Prudential Tower in Boston, however, their lives change, becoming chaotic when a bomb explodes on the Red Line outside of Harvard Square.  Mishka has been away from home on both occasions, "playing in the Music Lab" both times, he says. 

As the novel moves back and forth between the lives of Mishka and Leela in Cambridge and their childhoods in Australia and South Carolina, the reader comes to understand what motivates them and how they are tied to the mysteries of their pasts.  Mishka  yearns to discover more about his father, and he has made connections with the Middle Eastern community, the mosque in Harvard Square, and the Café Marrakesh, where he plays the oud.  Leela's past comes back to haunt her when she is subjected to agonizing questioning about Mishka by an intelligence service, run, in this case, by Cobb Slaughter, a former friend from Promised Land who has been a Special Forces major in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the tension ratchets up, the reader becomes totally involved in the conflict between reality and illusion.  Is Mishka the naïf that he appears to be, or is he involved in terrorism?  The Orpheus myth is turned upside down when Mishka fails to return home and it is up to Leela to try to find and rescue him from "the underworld."

Hospital is a writer with rare gifts for creating suspense, even in a novel like this one, in which, Leela notes, "the ending [is] inevitable and curled up inside the first encounter like a tree inside a seed."  The trouble, she says, "was that the interpretation was obvious only in retrospect."  The Orpheus symbolism is clear throughout, enhanced by frequent references to the music of Gluck and other western composers who have celebrated the Orpheus myth.  Hospital divides the novel into nine sections, the climactic "Underworld" section making the symbolism clear to all and illuminating the inevitable conclusion.

Filled with rich action scenes related to contemporary issues, wonderful images, and themes dealing with illusion and reality, the ways our pasts govern our present, the importance of our parents in the shaping of our lives, and the prices we are willing to pay for love, the novel is exciting and tension-filled.  Compelling in its narrative pace, Orpheus Lost captures the nightmarish present, relates it to individual pasts, and forecasts the "costly dues" that one must pay for one's "heart's desire" in the future.  

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Orpheus Lost at MostlyFiction.com

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"Due Preparations for the Plague"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 3, 2003)

"This is the Black Death, avenging many centuries of wrong. Obey or you will be shot…This is the return of the Plague."

With these words the random killing begins in the hijacking of Air France Flight 64 from Paris to New York in September, 1987, a five day ordeal which results in hostage taking, the release of poison gas, and, ultimately, explosions and death for more than 400 people. This fictional but very realistic hijacking and the questions it raises about responsibility are major elements in what may be Janette Turner Hospital's "break-through" novel. Known for her atmospheric and richly detailed evocations of tension-filled times and places, often in her native Australia, her novels have always been powerful in their impact and almost surreal in their intensity, though she has yet to capture a large American audience. This situation may be about to change with this fast-paced, psychological thriller involving American airplane passengers, their survivors, and the possible involvement of American intelligence agents in the hijacking.


With a style somewhat reminiscent of John LeCarre, Turner Hospital tells sinister, overlapping stories of the unfortunate victims who were on the flight, the children who were released by the hijackers and survived to adulthood with never-ending questions about the past, and the family members who were left behind to mourn and search for answers. The narrative shifts back and forth through different speakers and points of view, from 1987 to the present and back, slowly building a multi-layered and suspenseful story, filled with imagery and haunting in its emotional impact.

Though the plot is exciting, the focus here is as much on character as it is on dramatic action. Some of the characters are the now-adult children of the hijacking victims, telling their stories from the present as they recall events from the past and the memories which torment them still, while others are the actual participants in the 1987 hijacking, telling their stories up to the moment of their deaths. Through the Phoenix Club, an informal support group, some of the children who survived the fateful hijacking still help each other fifteen years later, meeting in an abandoned boathouse as they connect and share their stories. Before long, the survivors begin to see tantalizing connections among their parents and acquaintances from the days before the hijacking, and when they do, they enter dangerous political and emotional territory.

As a result of their separate investigations, they come to believe that it is not only possible but likely that members of US security agencies helped engineer and implement the catastrophe which claimed their parents. They believe a man called Sirocco to be the terrorist who commanded the hijacking, thought at various times to be a Saudi, Algerian, Pakistani, or Egyptian, but they are also trying to identify Salamander, the American who is supposed to have "controlled" him. When Lowell Hawthorne, an almost-divorced father of two, is given a key to a locker at Logan Airport after his father's recent death, he finds himself the possessor of fifteen-year-old documents and tapes from the 1987 hijacking, which threaten his security and endanger his life. When some of the other now-adult children of the tragedy begin to die mysterious deaths or find themselves followed and observed, the rising tension among the remaining survivors becomes almost palpable. And when Lowell reads that "Operation Black Death was a politically necessary exercise that got out of hand," his own fear and anger at this betrayal by his own countrymen threaten to explode.

Turner Hospital's eye for detail is unerring, and she uses metaphors with skillful effect to reveal a character's state of mind or create atmosphere. Lowell, when dreaming, experiences "a terrible intrusive slash of sound, white at the center with red capillaries rivering out." Another character "moved in a weather of anxiety." Yet another comments, ironically, that "Life is a monologue that we tweak and edit every day." As the story gradually unfolds from its multiple viewpoints, the novel's movement creates its own seductive vortex, drawing into it all the characters and all the information we have acquired. As it gains momentum, it moves inevitably forward, resulting ultimately in a whirlwind of an ending which consumes all its participants.

The author broadens her scope beyond the immediate lessons of this hijacking, pointing out that this kind of violence is not unique to our own time period. "From Sodom and Gomorrah to Nagasaki, we walk with alchemists and gods," she says. "We make firestorms from air, and we walk through the first unharmed. We are Zeus of the thunderbolts, and we are the decontamination and survival experts. We may not yet have learned how to make a heaven on earth…but we are specialists in making that other world spoken of in the Gospel of Mark, a place where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched." To the historical references, she also joins numerous literary allusions. Citing Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus, and others, she points out that all these writers "were haunted by their own nightmares, by their own betrayals, and by their dead. Like the Ancient Mariner, they were condemned to tell the stories of those who haunted them as an act of propitiation, to keep their Furies at bay." Smoothly integrated and thought-provoking, these references add to the novel's impact and give it universality.

Though the author does rely somewhat heavily on coincidence to resolve the story and create an ending that has echoes of "happily ever after," the novel is thoughtful, vividly written, and hypnotic in its spell, a wonderfully satisfying and exciting book for summer reading.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


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About the Author:

Janette Turner HospitalJanette Turner Hospital was born in Melbourne in 1942. She grew up in Brisbane and attended Queensland University and Kelvin Grove Teacher College earning a BA in 1965. She later taught in country Queensland and Brisbane, married Clifford Hospital in 1965 and moved with him to Boston, USA, and then on to Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Her short stories and novels have won international awards, and she is published in 10 languages. In 1995, Griffith University awarded her an honorary doctorate for service to Australian literature. Though her life is globally nomadic, she continues to spend part of every year in Queensland, and still considers Brisbane home.

Janette has just been appointed Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina - a rare honour for which there are only ever 26 positions. She was awarded the 2003 Russell Research Award for Humanities and Social Sciences for most distinguished publications by a faculty member.

Janette has held Writer-in-Residence positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, the University of Sydney and La Trobe University in Melbourne. She divides her time between Canada, the USA and Queensland.

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