Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 16, 2022

Orpheus Lost, by Janet Turner Hospital

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews from my journals 1997-2007

The catalyst for retrieving this review at this time is that Sue at Whispering Gums has just posted a review of ‘The Insiders’, a short story by Janet Turner Hospital. I have two unpublished reviews of JTH’s novels, Due Preparations for the Plague (2003) and Orpheus Lost (2007) but though I liked them both, I’ve chosen this one because it made such a strong impression on me.

Only a year after Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist, came Orpheus Lost by Janet Turner Hospital, and though JTH’s is an infinitely better novel, it’s no coincidence that these two authors were writing about issues arising from Western governments’ responses to 9/11.  By the middle of that decade there was deep disquiet around the world about the human rights of those suspected of terrorism. The legitimate fear of mass casualties from Al Qaeda’s attacks had led to practices previously abhorred by the West: torture, detention without trial, the abrogation of habeas corpus; imprisonment under inhumane conditions; an excess of covert surveillance; and the suspension of legal representation for suspects on the grounds of national security.  Public panic was exploited by politicians, effectively silencing all objections.  Authors who spoke out against all this were rare.

This is the blurb for Orpheus Lost:

Leela is a mathematician who has escaped her Southern hometown to study in Boston. She meets an Australian musician, Mishka, and from the moment she first hears him play his music grips her; they quickly become lovers. Then one day Leela is picked up off the street and taken to an interrogation centre somewhere outside the city. There has been an explosion in the subway; terrorism is suspected. The interrogator—an old childhood friend—now reveals to her that Mishka may not be all he seems. In this compelling reimagining of the Orpheus story, Leela travels into an underworld of kidnapping, torture, and despair in search of her lover. Janette Turner Hospital, whose works are “richly imbued with a highly lyrical and luminous quality” (San Diego Union-Tribune) again shows her genius, interweaving a literary thriller with a story of passion and the triumph of decency in confusing and dangerous times.


Orpheus Lost, by Janet Turner Hospital, first published 2007

From my reading journal, dated 22nd July, 2007

This was a gripping novel.  Leela, from ‘Paradise Land’ in the US Bible Belt meets Jewish-Lebanese Mishka Bartok from the Daintree Rainforest, and they fall in love.  They are both students in Boston: she’s doing the maths of music and he’s doing the music of the Middle East.  They make a lot of passionate love.

But Mishka goes to a mosque (to hear their music) and meets a man who says he recognises him as the son of a radical Islamist.  This is the catalyst for Mishka, who has never known his father, and whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors, to set off for Baghdad with a false passport.  This is because his identity is fragile and he thinks that finding his missing father will help him to resolve who he really is. He realises that he may not like his father or what he stands for (especially because as a fundamentalist, his father would abhor music), but Mishka feels that he needs to know.

Into this messy situation comes Cobb Slaughter, a childhood ‘friend’ of Leela, the son of a veteran of the Iraq war, and a private security consultant.  He’s a gung-ho military man with a penchant for summary justice and torture.  Slaughter becomes suspicious of these visits to the mosque and Mishka’s association with suspected terrorists.  When Mishka disappears, he gets Leela arrested and has Mishka ‘renditioned’, a practice by which the Americans send their suspects to friendly nations who are less squeamish about torture, to do their dirty work for them.

It was a bit grim reading these scenes so soon after watching the violence inflicted on the Resistance by the Nazis in the film ‘Black Book’ [released in 2006, see the trailer here.] JTH writes fragments of text from different times and places interspersed with Misha’s memories and fears and real-time torture in the underground cells formerly belonging to Saddam Hussein. It is disorientating — and very effective at conveying poor Mishka’s confusion and agony at the hands of the guardians of the War on Terror.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

JTH is too good a novelist to portray Cobb Slaughter as an unequivocal villain.  He is a crazy mixed-up man who has fruitlessly fancied Leela since they were young together in Promised Land.  His motivation for pursuing Mishka to Baghdad is never quite clear.  Perhaps it’s to exercise his power of life and death; perhaps it’s a realisation that he can never be a man that Leela could love.

The scary themes in this novel include the willingness of the spooks to interpret naïve actions as suspicious, and once tainted by such suspicions, the innocent find it almost impossible to convince the authorities otherwise, as Dr Muhamed Haneef found to his cost when he was accused by Australian authorities of aiding terrorists. It’s also alarming to note the capacity of the authorities to have a difficult person ‘disappear’ and to have other embassies willing to acquiesce in it.  Orpheus Lost shows the cheapness of life and the helplessness of ordinary people caught up in this kind of incident, to deal with it in an effective way.  Justice ought not to depend on having an intercessor both determined and lucky.


Orpheus Lost inverts the Orpheus myth so that it is the man who is captive in the Underworld and his lover brings him back to life.  The relationship between Mishka, Leela and Slaughter is more central to the narrative than the plot, and the dreamlike fragments of thought and memory focus on feelings rather than events (which can cause some confusion for readers.)  But Mishka’s experiences mean that his life can never be the same.  He is a broken man unlikely ever to make music again. There is no banal happy ending after what’s happened. It’s not just Orpheus who is lost, it’s also the values that we purport to hold dear.

As Sue noted in her review, JTH is interested in how human beings negotiate dark matter.  That is a question relevant to my current reading of the Holocaust memoir ‘Take the Child and Disappear’  by Nina Basset.  The child in the photo on the front cover is alive today because one man, for reasons the author will never know, chose to negotiate dark matter in a way different to everyone else around him.  It’s a question that haunts us all.

Author: Janet Turner Hospital
Title: Orpheus Lost
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2007
ISBN: 9780732284411 pbk., 358 pages
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. That’s a fantastic term “negotiating dark matter.”

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    • Yes, it’s the human condition in a nutshell, because whether in major or minor ways, we all have to stand up or stand aside at some time or another.

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    • Agreed. Great term. And one that applies to my reading life. I am always intrigued by moral ambiguities and good people doing bad things etc.

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  2. You’ve done well retrieving that review from your notes and memory faulty, Lisa, and have framed it so well as a response to the times about which it was written. I have always liked Hospital.

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    • “Vault” not “faulty”. Working from my iPad and didn’t notice the correction. (This is so tedious having to sign in from scratch every time I comment on your blog. Wish I knew what was going on, and why the immense difference between WordPress.com blogs.j

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      • Sue, that is what happens when I comment from my phone – I have to enter my name and password for every comment. My guess is that one of my gmail accounts is the ‘dominant’ account for my phone, not the hotmail account I use for WP.

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    • LOL, not notes and memory, Sue… some of my journal entries are full blown rants. I confess, I have not included what I wrote about a-hem, our Prime Minister at the time!

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  3. Thank you Lisa for going to the trouble of reconstructing this review. In my view OL is an excellent parable of the west’s response to 9/11 and the way that has been directed at Muslims.

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    • Yes, I read your review too, and Sue’s of course. I went on a hunt at my libraries for JTH’s last novel from 2014, but none of them stock *any* of her novels. I’m trying not to buy anything, much less books, while the house is in chaos due to impending polishing of floorboards, but when things are serene again I’m going to track down a copy, probably second-hand.

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      • Looks it up, The Claimant (2014). I’ve read very little JTH, I probably should start at the beginning.
        And when your floor boards are polished you can move all your books back again – almost as much fun as moving house.

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        • If I had known that they need to be redone every now and again I would never have had them in the first place.

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  4. […] This was a gripping novel.  Leela, from ‘Paradise Land’ in the US Bible Belt meets Jewish-Lebanese Mishka Bartok from the Daintree Rainforest, and they fall in love.  They are both students in Boston: she’s doing the maths of music and he’s doing the music of the Middle East.  They make a lot of passionate love. Read on … […]

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  5. It sounds like something that would appeal to me so I’ve skipped your spoilers and will see if I can borrow this from the library. I read Due Preparations for the Plague many years ago and despite a weak ending it remains one of the most profoundly frightening novels I have ever read. It almost put me off ever stepping foot on a plane!

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  6. This sounds like a fascinating and important book. My book journal entries pre-blog (and my early blog posts) are so short as to be almost useless, so I salute you for reconstructing this review, too!

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    • Mine vary a lot. Some are quite good, not unlike what I write now, others are just venting about why I didn’t like a book (I used to finish everything until quite recently, whether I liked it or not), and others are very detailed notes which require a lot of work to make them readable.
      Sometimes I’ve mainly focussed on the plot details, so they’re useless, and other times I’ve thought a lot about the themes and issues but haven’t recorded the plot points and can’t actually remember what happened in the end.
      The difference is, I suppose, that now when I write online I know I am writing for an audience so I attend to particular features of a review, whereas in my journal I am writing only for myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Hill/ANZLitLoversThe Visit, Amy Witting (here)Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital (here)Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet (here) plus quite a bit of background on BarbaletThe Penguin […]

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