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Oyster

by Janette Turner Hospital

A world both sear and voluptuous, dark and light, harsh and merciful – that’s the terrain of Australian-born Ontario writer Janette Turner Hospital’s new novel, Oyster.

Set in the Queensland, Australia outback in a kind of floating time that incorporates both the happening and the aftermath of an apocalyptic cult-tragedy, Oyster is Turner Hospital’s most ambitious – and most seamless – novel to date. Always evocative in her use of language, often playful in her use of time, the author here delivers a highly visual novel, one in which colour and texture are palpable. Consider her description of the opals that have lured people to the unmapped, bleak, and haunted town of Outer Maroo:

“Opal. The word itself was like a charm. You could stroke a word like opal. You could taste it. You could swallow it whole, raw and silky, like an oyster….”

At first, it is the rumour of the “seams of turquoise and starflash red” opal reefs that draws people to Outer Maroo. And then it is Oyster – the cult leader with the piercing blue eyes and the charismatic manner – who keeps them there.

Turner Hospital is brilliant in capturing the paranoia and suspicion of small towns bent upon protecting themselves from outside scrutiny, and in showing the helplessness of individual will when faced with mass compulsion. In this setting, where everyone is oppressed by the drought and by the creeping fog (“like an exhalation of the arid earth itself”) that the locals call “The Old Fuckatoo,” two women shine – 16-year-old Mercy Given, whose bookish preacher father has been deposed by the new cult, and Jess, a former urchin who wants to disappear into the obscurity of Outer Maroo to escape her own past.

After only a few pages, the reader is in the outback, tasting the dust, feeling the blanket of dry-suction heat, understanding the Aussie slang (brumbies, potch, noodling, Murris), watching the horizon for signs of Land Rovers and Toyota Troopies, wondering if the neighbours can be trusted not to negotiate one of the town’s many “accidents” or will be the next people to “disappear.”

To write this novel, Turner Hospital researched opal mining, aboriginal lore, outback travel, and cult leaders such as Rock Theriault. The triumph of her writing is that all the research – the psychological motivation of cult followers, the still-ingrained racism of rural Australia, the wonder of the trapped water that makes silica into opal – is infused into the novel’s narrative.

The destructive piston of human greed, and how love and religion can have the power of both good and evil – these are the big topics, heavy stuff. Happily, both Janette Turner Hospital’s vision and her writing are more than equal to the weight of her subject.