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

Outer Maroo is a town shown on no maps, invisible to government agencies, paying no taxes and placing no votes. It is a town which has conspired to disappear and at the opening of this haunting and powerful novel it is a town which is finding that the price of such isolation is madness.

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.

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