BOOK REVIEW / Underground of the mind: The Last Magician - Janette Turner Hospital: Virago, pounds 14.99

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BENEATH the glittering streets and affluent suburbs of Sydney lies an underworld, a maze of sewers and tunnels inhabited by the dispossessed and damned. Everybody has heard of the Quarry, as it is called, and although some dismiss it as an urban myth, it grows and threatens like the encroaching deserts of the Third World.

Lucy, who begins the complex and non-linear narration of The Last Magician, has discovered early that a slipping of time, like a fissure in the pavement or a crack in a teacup, can plunge one into a nether world: back and forth she goes between past and present, the 'official' world and the underground. A private-school girl turned prostitute turned documentary film-maker, she becomes entangled with and obsessed by two central characters: a mysterious woman named Cat; and Charlie, a photographer and film-maker himself, the last magician of the title.

Much of the book involves the search for Cat (a catalyst in all the character's lives) and for Charlie and Lucy's lover Gabriel, both of whom have disappeared, officially murdered in a 'tavern brawl'. No bodies are found, although a pile of bones is disinterred. Robinson Gray, Gabriel's father, now a judge, knows too much about all the disappearances. As children, he, Cat and Charlie were involved in a tragedy, the death of Cat's simple little brother, which has determined the course of all their lives.

It is difficult at first to make much sense of the story; like Lucy sifting through Charlie's photographs, the reader must persevere with the fragments of montage which might hold clues, the negatives and pentimento. Those who do will be rewarded by a haunting novel. The sections that deal with childhood are particularly fine. Charlie is the son of Chinese shopkeepers who tell him proudly that he is 'true-blue Australian'; but his real name is not Charlie ('Can you imagine how Fu Hsi would go down in Brisbane? You're Charlie Chink, the kids say, because they do that in Australian schools, bash the difference out'). Cat is a wild little girl from the wrong side of the tracks; a schoolteacher of Dickensian cruelty tries to bash the difference out of her, and, after a masterly courtroom scene, devastating in its indictment of the unfairness of society, she is eventually sent to reform school. That miscarriage of justice will at last lead her to madness and to the Quarry.

Janette Turner Hospital's wit, surreally beautiful imagination and lucid prose give us the real Australia, worlds away from Neighbours or even Prisoner Cell-Block H: the softly rotting rainforest and the circles of hell in the inferno under the city and in people's minds. This is her most ambitious novel to date, if her least accessible, and a bit heavy on feline and human comparisons; memorable in its metaphor of the city's invasive underground as guilt - and sometimes magical.