He'll be wearing white pyjamas
Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital Virago Press, pounds 14.99; Philippa Gregory enjoys an exciting tale of sexy cultists and opulent jewels
Saturday 07 September 1996
In a slow accretion of detail the reader learns that this Queensland town has managed to disappear from the bureaucracy of modern life despite the fact that it is sitting on a fortune in Australian opals. An unholy trinity of men exploit this wealth - the messianic cult leader Oyster, his prophet at the chapel who frightens people into order with his sermons, and a powerful landholding grazier. They each bring their own particular skills: the weapons to defend the isolation of the opal reef, the business skills to market and profit from the gems, and Oyster recruits workers for the opal reef from ashrams, communes and beaches. The formation of this power structure, and its implosion is the simple story of the novel.
The conspiracy is uncovered by a young girl whose imagination and honesty overcome the forces of concealment. Mercy Givens is an enchanting child, enchantingly written: the emotional heart of the novel. But because she is ignorant of the world, and confused by the conspiracy of Outer Maroo she traces her way only slowly through the plot, and sometimes the reader grows weary of the painstaking pace.
The core of the story is the familiar, even genetic tale: about a town with a secret. In Maroo, the telephone lines are controlled, all letters disappear into a tin box and are never sent, the outsiders who are drawn into working the reef by Oyster are brainwashed into becoming his slaves, living like troglodytes in the disused mine shafts, mining for opals all day, dizzied by wild prophetic religious services all night. Oyster selects women to service his desires and the novel hovers perilously close to comic melodrama when he uncovers his "sceptre of power". Visitors hoping to find their children among the reef-working zombies have fatal accidents. Everyone in the town is bought by the priceless opals, and seduced by the powerful combination of millennial fear and political paranoia.
It's persuasively written; but such stories have been done many times before and it is a disappointment that an author such as Turner Hospital could go no further with this richly fertile notion than a sexy cult leader in white pyjamas and a reef full of opals.
What she does superbly, is the setting of Outer Maroo. You can almost smell the stink of the heat which settles over the little town, you can almost taste the longing for rain after years of drought. The tiny shop, the bar, the church, are vividly mapped. The sense of distance, of miles of outback and uncharted land is powerfully evoked. The characters are idiosyncratic and persuasively written, from Mercy Givens herself to the circle of people around her - her missing teacher Miss Susan Rover, her mother sinking into shock and depression and her defeated father. Her recollection of Miss Rover's lessons are what keep Mercy going, and the reader will enjoy them too. Miss Rover believes that colonial readers and writers will always have the edge over those from the metropolitan centre for only they can learn two world views: from the colonial power looking down, and from the colonised country looking up. Thus the underdog always knows more: a good principle for a revolutionary.
0yster is a welcome development by Turner Hospital whose previous books have been obscure, if not almost unreadable. This one, with its evocative sense of place and exciting plot should command a wider readership for an author of powerful literary gifts.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 2 Maisie Williams has an excellent message for one confused fan
- 3 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 4 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 5 Tampon tax scrapped in Canada after petition convinces conservative government
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Bob Dylan: How the Isle of Wight festival managed to steal the voice of a generation from Woodstock
Big Brother 2015 new housemates: Simon Gross returns as stripper Marc O'Neill, model Harry Amelia Martin and X Factor reject Sam Kay join
Burning Man festival revellers accidentally torch prehistoric artefacts in Israel
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'