I always think the novel I've read last by Janette Turner Hospital is her best, but her latest, ORPHEUS LOST, may indeed be the one. She writes again about what she has covered before: fanatical religions, global terrorists, the relationship between music and mathematics, a story that takes place in many locales-- in this instance, Boston; Promised Land, a small town in South Carolina; Queensland; Sydney; Beirut; Baghdad. Ms. Hospital takes the Orpheus myth and turns it on its ear. Leela (Leela-May Magnolia Moore), the child of a widowered crazed Pentecostal from a small town in South Carolina who is now a graduate student in math at MIT, one day hears Mishka Bartok, an Australian, who is also a graduate student but in music at Harvard, playing otherworldly beautiful music on the violin (the aria "Che faro senza Euridice" from Gluck's opera ORPHEO ED EURDICE) in the Boston subway. They become lovers that day. "He has the eyes of Orpheus, Leela thought. He has the eyes of Orpheus at the moment when Eurydice is bitten by the snake or perhaps when he has lost her for the second time, when she is pulled back into the underworld, forever beyond reach." For a season these two characters enclose themselves in their own cocoon, but their world is soon shattered by suicide bombers who now are blowing themselves up in Boston and other major U. S. cities.
With the first line of this novel, "Afterwards, Leela realized, everything could have been predicted from the beginning," Ms. Hospital, joining the likes of Camus, Melville and Toni Morrison, all masters of brilliant first lines, sets the tone for this finely wrought and suspenseful story, describing characters and situations with sparse but evocative language. The character Cobb as a boy had "skittish intensity" while Leela is full of "controlled intensity." She tells her former dissertation supervisor that Southerners are "unfailing courteous, especially when angry." One character's laughter "rose like a dandelion puff."
Ms. Hospital writes eloquently about three different characters, Leela, Mishka and Cobb, all so different but ultimately so much alike. Even though they wander far away from the places of their childhood, they are never really very far from those spots. In their memory, homing they forever go. Ms. Hospital has written previously of her own love for Queensland, where she grew up, in the short story "Litany for the Homeland"-- "Wherever I am, I live in Queensland." When she writes about Australia in this novel, her prose literally sings. The novel for all its bleakness-- and there is enough of that to spare-- is ultimately about hope, reconciliation, forgiveness, the power of both music and love.
ORPHEUS LOST has to be as good as any novel I've read this year, perhaps the best. Since Ms. Hospital now lives in the U. S. in South Carolina, can't we claim her, along with Peter Carey, another brilliant transplanted Australian writer, both as an American and Southern writer?