Cool stones in a hot land

OYSTER by Janette Turner Hospital Virago pounds 14.99

The outback of Australia seems in its hot emptiness to burn off any merely verbal attempts to define it. Patrick White's magnificent Voss tackled this problem and overcame it with his custom- ary vigour of observation and a chaste tragic bleakness. In Oyster Janette Turner Hospital addresses herself to the outback and to the impact upon a closed community, Outer Maroo (population 87), of a self-proclaimed messiah, Oyster. Outer Maroo is an opal mining town:

"Opal. The word itself was like charm. You could stroke a word like opal. You could taste it. You could swallow it whole, raw and silky, like an oyster, and then Oyster could reel you in.

"There was, the rumour went, even more opal in the gnarled underside of Western Queensland than could be trawled from the caverns of Cooper Pedy or from Lightning Ridge. Seams of turquoise and starflash red must run through the sleep of the fevered and of those drawn to hazardous quests. Psychics, given a handful of soil from a cattle station, could no doubt identify the run of a seam. Dreamers must have seen opalescent veins branching like creeks in flood, a dense tangle of them, a teeming capillary system of translucent wealth. At truck stops, people whispered of overnight fortunes. There was also, I think, brisk trafficking in metaphysics around the traps and it was widely believed that opal was now found by geologists, nor even, except sporadically, by fossickers, but the dedicated, the single- minded, the pure in heart. It must be waited for, though in the right place, needless to say, and in the right frame of mind.

"So there was opal and there was Oyster."

Janette Turner Hospital is, like all writers of arresting imaginative prose, an observer and a rearranger. As she writes of the outback heat, it too "rearranges" people. The result is a language of shocking physicality, a mixture of looking with peeled eyes and Bible-echoing obsessive beat. The prose is dehydrated of all soothing, even punitively refreshing, tedium:

"The two strangers are pleated diagonally like Japanese dolls, rice-papered, their heads stretched out into points that slant away to the right of their feet. When they move, the lines shift in slow motion, and new points form, new angles, new shapes. They rearrange themselves like coloured chips in a kaleidoscope. The woman puts out a hand to steady herself, and for a moment Mercy can see her clearly, but as soon as the woman's palm touches the flank of the truck, her mouth opens in shock and she goes out of focus again. She cradles her hand against her cheek and then blows on the pads of skin tenderly (Mercy can see two mouths, two hands) and looks around in a sleep walking way."

Outer Maroo is crushed between its fiery opals and the burning sky, its population crushed too between the tugging fundamentalisms of bush-lore and drink, and churchgoing clean-scoured living. It has five public buildings, including the pub and a church with termites and the soft rot. We watch the gathering religious apocalypse through the young Mercy Given and Old Jess, known too as Old Silence. For each of these women Outer Maroo is "the only normal", and some just-beginning or still-recalled association with the love of a man the only short secular relief into a world better than this norm. Old Jess, brought up wild as a brumby, has loved holiness too. At the age of seven, she was "got by the nuns":

"I loved the sweet order, the cleanliness, the sung vespers, the smell of books and learning, the contemplative silences, the headstrong intelligent women behind demure veils."

This contrasts with Mercy's apprehension of her mother, who longs to establish calm but cannot.

" `It's lovely to have you home for lunch', her mother says, but she says it with that air of disproportionate gratitude that Mercy finds so burdensome of late. Her mother has changed the scale of things, so that minute details will bellow like spinnakers and threaten everyone's balance."

This sense of imminent sepsis, of the potential for the smallest abrasions to swell and burst in poison, suffuses the book. It is the state of a society at the mercy of weather and of human hysteria, which is a kind of weather.

As the book's last terror approaches - Janette Turner Hospital has reflected unflinchingly on such horrors as the Waco Siege - the only stability seems to have its source in the elemental indifference of the outback, its terminal nowhereness, its deathly distance.

The quality of Janette Turner Hospital's descriptive writing is more absolutely concrete and certain here even than in her previous books. Always an instinctive writer, she has given herself attentively to the mystery of her native land and cloven it into themes of considerable grandeur and hard beauty shaded by an understanding of what is tender in each one of us, and that gives a paradoxically consoling sense of our littleness under heaven.

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