There are two Janette Turner Hospital novel’s on my bookshelf and only one is staying. It’s Oyster, the first one I read. The second is The Last Magician, which is a very fine book indeed, but it didn’t reach me where Oyster reached me.
Okay, so without spoilers, Oyster is a cataclysmic novel and one of the most interesting questions that the reader ends up asking themselves is whether it’s pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic. Is the ‘lost’ town lost because the apocalypse has happened, or is imminent? Is the cult to which virtually all the townspeople pays lip-service a precursor of the end of days or a response to them? Seamed throughout with the violent beauty of the Australian outback, just as the narrative arc is seamed with the greed for opals, this is an unforgiving novel.
I read it as part of a binge I went on. It started with Thomas Keneally, picked up speed with Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee and sprinted through Tim Winton (although I went back and took Winton again at a leisurely pace) and Maurice Gee – it was Jones of a literary journey that was part Australian literature and part outsider novel and Janette Turner Hospital combined the best of both themes in this stunning but bleak narrative.
Her fragmented narrative in Oyster is more fractal than broken, and its endlessly looping experience of loss, harm and beauty is a eulogy that is the more stunning because it’s rendered through the absolute hopelessness of a society where endurance is the only virtue and any future simply involves survival of intolerable conditions of fear, uncertainty and loss. It’s a complete keeper.