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Atmospheric Pressures
by Sandra Martin

WHAT, YOU MAY wonder, is an isobar? According to my Concise Oxford Dictionary, an isobar is a line on a map that connects places of equal atmospheric pressure. Janette Turner Hospital, who majored in geography as well as English literature as an undergraduate, has borrowed the term normally associated with meteorology and applied it to fiction: the stories in this collection are like isobars connecting points where the pressure of memory exerts equivalent force. What, you may wonder, does that mean? Essentially she is probing her fictional memory -which in itself encompasses the real and the imaginary - as a map of experience, and plucking out those memories that are ...are what? equally sad? happy? painful? Try violent. Hospital has a tendency to overdress her images, which sometimes gives her writing a lacquered quality. She has smothered the urge admirably in Isobars, only rarely indulging in stacked adjectives and overblown images such as the gardening metaphors she uses to describe the man who delivers bonemeal for the dahlia garden in "Morgan Morgan" His clothes have a "rich, rancid smell;" his few teeth, which announced themselves like unvanquished sentinels on a crumbling rampart -were given over to a delicate vegetation. I recognized it: it was the same silk green fur that coated the fallen plums over which floated little black parasols of flies. Oh, for a pair of secateurs to do a little pruning. This book is really two collections in one: a series of stories illuminating misogynous violence, and another series exploring displacements. Separately, both series are troubling and engrossing, and each contains some very fine stories. However, they never mesh seamlessly into a single collection. After reading Isobars, I chanced upon a newspaper interview in which Hospital confirmed my guess that the violence against women in Isobars was a way of exorcising a horrifying incident in which she herself was the victim. Four years ago in Boston, the petite Hospital was assaulted by four men, one of whom was wielding a huge knife. She survived the attack, but the trauma is revisited in stories such as "Isobars;" "The Last of the Hapsburgs," and "The Second Coming of Come-by-Chance." In "`The Last of the Hapsburgs," two Holocaust survivors have married and emigrated to Mossman, a town in back-of-beyond Australia, seeking safety and anonymity. Their daughter, Rebecca, is befriended by her teacher, Miss Lucia Davenport. One steaming day Miss Davenport tries to dispel her ennui and cool off with a swim in the gorge. She invites Rebecca and another reclusive student, Hazel, to accompany her. Hazel, an aborigine, is as "unobtrusive as grass," with all the "spooky powers of a gecko lizard:" Yet violence seeks them out when a gang of local boys taunts and abuses them and steals their clothes, leaving them naked and alone. This story is dense with rumblings of a longer work and characters demanding bigger parts. Reading it is like stumbling into the middle of a novel. I want more. In "The Second Coming of Come-by-Chance," an extended drought inexorably reveals a town inundated 40 years before. The resurrection of the town also dredges up personal memories, particularly for Adeline Capper. What she remembers is being raped two decades earlier by local policemen on her way home from visiting one of her aboriginal students. Capper tried to report the assault, but how do you turn in the police? They simply sneered at her and then arrested her innocent hosts. Instead of one victim, there were several. She tries to tell the story of this longburied crime to the journalists covering the re-emergence of Come-by-Chance; but because she is old and female, and they ate arrogant and self-seeking, they do not believe her. Inevitably, the drought is broken by a series of cyclones and flash floods that wash away Adeline`s second chance at retribution. Less successful are the stories "Queen of Pentacles, Nine of Swords;" "Eggshell Expressway" and "Bondi:` in which women are both victims and victimizers. Whether they are prostitutes or pick ups, they are propelled towards flashpoints. In these stories, Hospital doesn`t seem able to go beyond documentation into insight and, consequently, the ambivalent residue is unsatisfying. It`s as though she is reaching for the means to bear witness not only for herself, but for all women: the only safe life is the unlived life. To be alive is to be surrounded by danger, whether you embrace it or shrink from it. There are no refuges, no protectors not even another woman can safeguard you from the violence of men. Surrounding and enclosing this cycle of violence is a shroud of displacement stories. It makes for an uneasy fit, as though Hospital didn`t quite have enough strong stories for Isobars to stand on its own. In fact, the first three stories in the book were published in the Australian and American editions of Hospital`s debut collection, Dislocations (1986). These stories are underlined by the myth of Persephone, surely an important metaphor for Australians raised in the belief that England, on the other side - not to mention the upper side - of the world is where "home" is. Although which world is upper side is surely a moot point nowadays. In "The Bloody Past, the Wandering Future;" Hospital contemplates the convolutions of the "routes and reasons of my nomadic life" and remembers a childhood visit with her grandfather to the Ballarat Gardens near Melbourne. He pauses at a statue of Persephone and explains to the little girl that she is weeping because she "misses her mother Demeter. And she wants to go back. Whichever world she`s in, she always misses the other one and wants to go back:" But sometimes it is too late to go back. The academic protagonist of the last story, "Here and Now," is living in Ontario and has just accepted a guest teaching post in her native Australia. But before she can return home, word comes from Australia that her mother has died; and because of the time difference, she hears this news a day earlier than the time of its actual occurrence back home. "`My mother,` she says, frowning a little, `died in the early hours of tomorrow morning."` That is a dislocation that allows Hospital to complete the cycle by having her character conclude "I will fly all the way back to the beginning." Would it were that simple.

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