BOOK REVIEW / Mysterious pictures with perfect hollandaise: The Last Magician - Janette Turner Hospital: Virago, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
IS IT a vice or a virtue in a novel that it needs to be read twice before you can see what it is getting at? The Australian-Canadian novelist Janette Turner Hospital is a writer of acute and startling liveliness, and her new book, a rapt inquiry into a ghastly emotional trauma, is an engrossing pleasure to read. Moreover - this is the 20th century, after all - a certain amount of cagey teasing is easily justified by some sharp asides on the mysteries of existence, on the trite foolishness of imagining that we can ever really get to the bottom of things, and so on. All the same . . .

The jacket photograph shows a jigsaw portrait of a man, with various pieces shoved around. It is an apt figure for the way the book works. Turner Hospital takes a tremendous story, carves it up into pleasant curly shapes, and invites us to put them together again. It is as if, since so much modern criticism insists that it is readers who effectively 'write' books, the author is damned if she is going to lift a finger to help. But the fact is there are a few simple truths here. It is just that the author doesn't want to let us in on them, or is worried that, put simply, they won't seem so interesting.

The book begins when an Australian television producer called Lucy, once a prostitute called Lucia, is shocked to see herself featured in a film made by Charlie Chang, the 'last magician' of the title. The film seems to answer several riddles at once, but since we don't even know what the riddles are, it is hard to be moved by Lucy's consternation.

Our own consternation is another matter. Just when we've got used to the idea that Lucy is a hooker, she starts quoting Dante and Botticelli and offering people a choice of teas: 'Earl Grey or plain old Bushells'. But this is characteristic: Turner Hospital is not interested in stereotypes and prefers juggled motives. Indeed, a large part of the book is concerned with the callous, narrow-minded nature of our social strait-jackets: Sydney's notorious 'quarry' - a teeming pit of strip joints and drunken brawls and a real-life emblem for Dante's inferno - is growing all the time, yet people refuse to notice.

Anyway, Lucy begins to unwrap the story. Charlie Chang, a photographer, restaurant owner and sage, has engineered a reunion between a group of childhood friends: himself, Catherine Reed and a judge called Robinson Gray. Chang is searching for a missing person, a fantastic vibrant girl called Cat, who was wronged years ago and is now believed to be a prostitute in the scary depths of 'the quarry' - the no-go area to which everyone seems to go.

Lucy herself, as chance would have it, happens to be pursuing her profession, or what she neatly refers to as her 'calling', in an upstairs room. She also happens, amazingly enough, to be having a bit of a thing with Gabriel, the judge's estranged son. These are not really coincidences, the book assures us; they are typical Charlie Chang.

Things start sliding into focus. Something happened back when Charlie and Catherine and Robinson Gray and Cat were children, something quite awful. And then something else happened, something even more awful.

Lucy starts digressing at this point. She even strikes up a canny conversation with an imaginary critic. 'I would like to stop here,' she announces. 'I would prefer not to go any further.' This is her way of saying that, whether we like it or not, she's going to plunge on regardless; but first she has a score or two to settle with 'fashionable' criticism.

'The critic spears her asparagus through hollandaise. 'Ahhh,' she says, closing her eyes. 'Perfection.' She tests the hollandaise with the tip of her tongue. 'A soupcon more lemon, perhaps,' she says. 'Violence in fiction,' she says, 'should illuminate. It should not simply horrify.' She sips her wine . . . 'If the text simmers more than glancingly in horror - in murder, or the dismemberment of a body, or violent rape, let us say - the flavour is spoiled.' '

This is good fun, and looks like a chirpy prelude to a burst of criticism-defying violence. So it is a bit disappointing that Turner Hospital remains elliptical to the end, and conforms to the asparagus-tip school of tasteful literature. The terrible thing that happens is that Lucy is told, in an unclear series of hints, about a brutal deed. This is not the same thing as having a brutal deed playing itself out before our eyes.

The novel begins by quoting one of the apostles of chaos theory, James Gleick: 'The first message is that there is disorder.' And Turner Hospital is anxious to emphasise her mixture of disruption and uncanny links. But a murder story such as this might not be the best way to dramatise chaos: what happened, however tangled a mixture of love and hate and vanity and shame, was quite hard and certain and irrefutable. It only becomes an unknowable mystery if the author refuses to tell us what took place.

The result is that the central drama is pushed into the background. The scary passion that the strait-laced judge feels for the wonderful wild Cat woman is asserted rather than dramatised. And Lucy's much less interesting story - about how she bumped into these funny people in Sydney and still doesn't know what to make of it all - dilutes momentous events into mere shadows.

Lucy has, too, an awkward fondness for adapting famous quotations. 'Humankind cannot bear very much lack of meaning,' she says; 'Upstairs the women come and go, talking of nothing'; 'You can read infinity in a grainy snapshot.' It is rather alarming, this tendency to take celebrated lines and then, just for fun, trash them. It leaves us with an uneasy feeling of warm but baffled admiration; for all her clear-minded brilliance, Turner Hospital has settled for sprightly dazzlement when all the equipment for more powerful illumination is right there, up her sleeve.