"Out here," says the inner voice of Oyster's Jess, "where the lone and level red sands stretch as far as the eye can see, I feel as though I could be the sole and final reference point for the very idea of dates and maps and language, such poignant ideas, all of them, such brave little stratagems, at once so frantic and clever and ridiculous in their attempts to get a foothold on chaos. They are like candles lit by the devoutly desperate in a church."
Jess is an ex-novice, ex-mapmaker, ex-government surveyor, and now an escapee to Outer Maroo, an inhospitable, blighted place in western Queensland's outback. The townspeople, to whom she almost never speaks, call her "Old Silence". They themselves are secretive, going to extremes to keep their collective existence and individual thoughts uncharted while time runs out in the face of a relentless Armageddon. Their story, exquisitely told by an extraordinary writer, is a breathtaking, resonant novel, and a provocative metaphor for our planet at the end of the millennium.
Central to Oyster is language, as a means to survival and understanding, as an attempt to circumscribe into comprehensible and comfortable patterns and bite-sized chunks the ungovernable, terrifying echo of the universe-as mapmaking. This is fitting: Turner Hospital is a consummate, seductive wordsmith whose prose is so lush, earthy, sultry, and immediate that it almost enters through the nostrils and not the eyes. Startling in its imagery and ironic humour, her writing is as encoded and many-layered as the opal-producing rock and shifting sands of Australia's interior where she sets her novel. And she is deft and confident enough to sometimes show her own hand manipulating the plotted points and language-as fabricator of the tale deciding her characters' fates, and as writer struggling for the perfect phrase-and nonetheless to keep the reader trapped and mesmerized by the story.
It is told mostly in two voices: one a compassionate, all-seeing narrator who slips into characters' minds or seems to breathe right beside them, then pulls back to give an objective view of events; the other is Jess. At first it is not obvious that the person we observe as Old Silence, viewed by the locals as something of a dimwit, is in fact this startlingly clear, wise voice. This revelation reverberates with political undertones: the other largely silent, observant, knowing character is Ethel, a derided aboriginal. While Jess is stoically expecting Outer Maroo's self-destruction, Ethel is calmly waiting for the weather to change. One theme in the book is the contempt felt by white Australians toward the government's accommodation to the aboriginal land-claim movement; for Turner Hospital, this is a return of the land to those who understood it better, respected it more, and took greater care of it. Jess describes the outback as a "country of mirages and saltpans and lost languages." And a parallel is drawn with the revival of another dead language in a similar landscape: one of the characters, whose family was decimated in the Holocaust, has relatives who are part of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish revival.
The book is also a warning against political and religious extremism. As Arma-geddon approaches from off the map towards Outer Maroo-where outsiders are unwelcome, telephone linesmen get blown up, and gas is rationed so no-one can leave-the other voices telling the story are silenced. Young people from all over the world find their way to the opal-containing land formations outside the town, seeking salvation from Oyster, a latterday messiah who has appeared out of the wilderness and whose white costume covers an filthy core. The townspeople revile the exploited kids, but at the same time share in Oyster's opal bonanza and in his desire not to be found or taxed. For that reason, even when Oyster's pearls of wisdom turn out for the kids to be skipping stones to hell, their postcards out-their desperate beacons-never get farther than the back room of the general store. We read these fragments of their struggles for understanding, but they do not give the whole picture. Similarly, Susannah Rover, the school-teacher, a prescient outsider, delivers a truncated, satirical version of events through her journal, which young Mercy Given, a local schoolgirl, discovers and keeps hidden in a tunnel maze along with a forbidden dictionary and other books. ("If an essay lies in a box somewhere, in an abandoned opal mine, does it ferment?" Mercy asks herself, wondering about the subversive power of words.) After Miss Rover challenges the townspeople, saying that the truth not yet decoded in the uneducated minds of their own children will emerge-"Words are maps, you'll find out"-she is abruptly "transferred".
Words and the knowledge they bring are anathema to the bandits of Outer Maroo; they are either twisted or unspoken. Mr. Prophet, pastor of the town's rigid fundamentalist church, spins the Bible's words of salvation and revelation into a demented, suffocating stranglehold on his flock, in order to maintain the power of the town's dishonest trinity of businessmen, and he burns the books of a rival, excoriating him for his learning and silencing him as a warning to others who might have the urge to give voice to their collective secret. Meanwhile, the unmentionable itself assails everyone's nostrils every day in the form of the Old Fuckatoo, a putrid, burning, omnipresent stench that chokes the town, which is in the midst of a drought so pervasively woven into the book that we can almost taste the sulphur of the wells as they run dry. Thus, when two new people show up digging for answers for which the townspeople have buried the words, this microcosmic society's rotten foundations cave in and the underlying evil explodes.
One thing I admire about Turner Hospital is her ability to infuse her novels with a wealth of scholarship. As in one of her earlier books, Charades, she draws effectively upon the mysteries of science: particle physics, geology, computers, the human mind. She details-in a lavishly sexual way-the phenomenon of the transformation and survival of the oyster, with much broader implications. And, of course, she taps into the force of Biblical teaching. In this way, she anchors her stories in the learning, assumptions, traditions, and folklore that are the underpinnings of our understanding. And from these, the stories billow out. For this reason, her books seem futuristic, yet rooted in ages past: mystical, metaphysical.
At the same time, the seekers and scroungers who move through her pages are damp creatures born of the bog of humanity. She has a powerful ability to make us care about the characters she creates. They have known their share of shame, and pain, and perhaps of jubilation.
Even her brutal men are strangely vulnerable. It seems that often her strongest women are damaged, inexpressibly desperate and alone, yet linked to a greater knowingness. In the impressionable, brave character of Mercy, we are given a wonderful rendering of one of these women, struggling out of the charged, confused opacity of adolescence. The characters' farcical, tag-like names serve to underscore their complexity.
"People perish," Turner Hospital writes. "Their habitations and their histories seem to leave no trace, though they do make an effort, they scatter messages. Relics abound, if one only knows how to look. In fact, Outer Maroo is thick with coded testaments, but the messages are legible only to those who can read the secretive earth." It is the naive, fertile mind of Mercy Given that is charged with deciphering the abundance of clues and passing on the story of the destruction of her world, echoing other fugitives from other Armageddons, past and future. For time, Turner Hospital writes, is not linear; it is elastic, and rounds back on itself. "The water in opal is thousands of years old...," Mercy muses, "so the past is locked inside it the way a meaning is locked in a word." As Ethel prophesies rain on the horizon at Outer Maroo, Mercy escapes onto the map, toward the mirage of Brisbane, beacon of freedom and civilization-her New Jerusalem-where water actually runs in the riverbed. What will she really find there?
We are left with questions as keepers of Earth, where the land speaks of eternal upheaval through its opals and fractals, oysters speak through their pearls, and we speak-how? In languages of truth and enlightenment, or signposts of destruction?
Anne Steacy is a Toronto writer.