Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2015

Charades (1987, reissued 2015), by Janette Turner Hospital

CharadesUQP have reissued some treasures in their Modern Classics series: there are six so far, noticeably all by female authors – Gillian Mears, Olga Masters (see my review of Loving Daughters), Elizabeth Jolley, Kate Grenville, Thea Astley (see my review of A Descant for Gossips) and now Janette Turner Hospital.

Janette Turner Hospital was born in Queensland in 1942, but she has lived in the US and Canada for most of her adult life.  From her ten novels, I had previously read two: Due Preparations for the Plague (2003) and Orpheus Lost (2007) so I was pleased to see the re-release of Charades.  It’s a most interesting book, artful in its construction and yet sincere in its treatment of lost souls.

Charade Ryan is a young woman in search of her father Nicholas Truman, and it is she who seduces her lover Professor Koenig with Scheherazade-like tales in order that he might tell her what she wants to know.  All she knows of Nicholas is scraps of memory and imagination, but from her own cuckoo-like existence she knows that he was not like her mother’s other men.

My mum – Bea Ryan, the slut of the Tamborine Mountain, Queen Bea, Honey Bea, that Bloody Breeder B. – my mum would stare and shake her head.  Never seen anything like it, she would say.  There were always brothers and sisters, older and younger, falling all over each other and me.  There were always the men, stopping by to have a beer with my mum.  It was a small and noisy place, a fibro shack with lizards on the walls, and cracks and holes that were hung with sacs of spiders’ eggs. But I would wedge myself into a corner, two sides protected, crosslegged on the floor, a book propped open on my knees, and I wouldn’t even deign to acknowledge the company.

How’d you get that one, Honey Bea? the men would laugh.  Been fooling around with a cyclo-pee-dia, have ya? That accounts for her hair, they would say.  (It stuck out in all directions like the pages of a riffled book; it was fair and my mum’s was dark.)  This is the little cuckoo in your nest? there was always someone to ask; and that someone always got rapped on the knuckles by Bea.   Uh-oh, they would laugh.  Cutting close to the bone, is it? Whyn’t you ever come clean on this, Bea?  (p.46)

From her mother Charade learns not to mind men, and how to handle them.  Or so she thinks.  Charade tells so many stories, sometimes the same story but in a Version 2, that the reader has no idea what to believe.  But that is true of Charade as well: she is equally lost in a swirl of stories about herself and her family.

Anyway, with Koenig she begins an entirely pragmatic relationship.  She entertains him with her body and her stories so that she can find her father, the man with whom she is obsessed although he has never been more than a wisp of an idea in her life.  Charade is not the only obsessive in the novel: Katherine Sussex is also obsessed with Nicholas, although she knew from the gossip that (like Koenig) he slept around.  Koenig is obsessed with his ex-wife Rachel.  The only one not obsessed is Bea, who takes life as she finds it. And perhaps not the elusive Nicholas.

The trail is fun to read, especially when Charade makes her way to England where she meets Nicholas’s two eccentric aunts.  Masterpieces of characterisation, they are jaunty snobs who delight in their wayward nephew’s additions to the family tree.   But there is also a serious thread: Koenig’s ex-wife Rachel cannot be like Bea and just take life as it comes because she is a Holocaust survivor who has to conquer her agoraphobia in order to testify against Holocaust denier Zundel. The image of this haunted woman hiding in her wardrobe writing letters to relations all murdered is horrific.

Charades is challenging to read.  Using physics as a persistent metaphor risks alienating the uninitiated, but Hospital does it playfully, and most of the time it worked for me.  The novel begins with Charade mocking Professor Koenig’s academic writing, and as she shakes his hand currents pass back and forth and he thinks of quarks and uneven fractional charges.  This is a man whose field of scholarly inquiry is the first second after time began but he is so hopelessly flawed that even his predatory behaviour towards his female students seems illusory.  Were there enough female students of quantum physics in those days for the legends to be true? Whatever about that, real time – that is, the time that you and I exist in – is, after all, catching up with him.  Even as he discusses energy densities he’s becoming a grubby old man with spots of sauce on his corduroy pants.  And like Charade, he is beginning to find that not believing in love is an illusion.

The prose is luscious.  I don’t know where in the world the author was when she wrote it but it seems as if the Queensland rainforest must have been right outside her open window.  The lush tropics permeate the novel while the scenes in Canada, the US and the UK seem pallid by comparison, and the dialogue is quintessentially Aussie.  Amongst other gems, there’s a droll moment when Charade lectures Koenig about how to pronounce her name:

‘By the way, you keep mispronouncing my name.  It’s Shuh-rahd. I hope you don’t mind me pointing it out.  It’s because Americans mispronounce the word itself.  The word charade, I mean.  The proper way, well, the Brit way, which is much the same thing isn’t it?  Is the way I say my name.’

And Hospital has the elements of a campus novel firmly in her sights too:

Koenig is aware of a rising sexual excitement, its origins murky.  He is dimly conscious that it has something to do with the provocation of a woman who does not seem aware of his … well, standing in the scientific community.  (Only last week a woman he had met at a Wellesley dinner party wrote a note inviting him for dinner and postcoital champagne.  When she telephoned she said there was an aura about him.)  Of course this kind of thing is tiresome.
Has Charade Ryan no awe at all?  (p.17)

If you need further convincing about Charades, see this collection of reviews on the author’s web page.

Author: Janette Turner Hospital
Title: Charades
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2015, first published 1987
ISBN 9870702253850
Review copy courtesy of UQP


Fishpond: Charades (UQP Modern Classics


  1. JTH is just one of many authors I wish I was well read in. And you continue to astonish me not just how many books you read, but how many you review. Ah well, another for the TBR.


    • I try to review them all:)
      I just like writing, it’s what I’ve always done, it’s just that now I do it online and people talk to me about the books I’ve read, which is really nice. Because until I met friends who read the same kind of books as I do via this blog, I didn’t know anyone like that in real life except my father, and once he moved to Qld, it just wasn’t the same.


      • Well I’m glad you do, I always find gaps during work to read you and Whispering Gums and so on but am torn between letting you know I’m reading and having something intelligent to say (nothing today obviously!). BTW my favourites are your Emile Zola series and Sue/WG’s Jane Austen.


        • Ah, you’re a classics man!
          But you know, I sometimes remember when I’m reviewing a book that might fit your Independent Woman focus, that it might be one you don’t know of, or haven’t had time to read yet:)


  2. Oh I bought this edition on my recent trip to Oz and look forward to reading it. Thanks for your review.


    • I look forward to reading yours: I love reading what other people think about books I’ve read almost as much as I love reading about the ones I haven’t read so that I know I need to buy them!


  3. Charades was my first Hospital, read back when it came out, around 1988-1989. I’ve not read at least 5 of her novels (including those two you’d read), and some short stories. I’m a bit of a Hospital fan. Her writing is exuberant and she loves to push her metaphors – particularly as I recollect in Charade and Borderline. (Maybe a bit of a restrained Astley! And they both have that Queensland influence!). As with many authors, her first, The ivory swing, has a bit autobiographical element and is well worth reading for that as much as for being an interesting story.


    • Yes, every time I read one of hers, I think I should read more of them:)


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