Orpheus Lost

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2007, 12:00am

Orpheus Lost

by Janette Turner Hospital

W.W. Norton, HK$250

Janette Turner Hospital's plot finds high gear within a few pages and starts moving - from Auschwitz to Iraq and to Harvard's urbanity, via mathematics, classical music and Greek mythology.

In the Greek myth, Hades gives Orpheus the chance to save his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld by luring her with his incomparable musicianship, on the condition that he not look back as she walks to the surface. In Turner Hospital's world the three central characters are drawn into the great catastrophe of the modern world - Iraq - because of an obsession with their past.

For Mishka, that longing goes back to the womb. Playing an oud in a sound booth, the Australian music student at Harvard feels 'cradled'. 'He supposed he must have been happy in the nine floating months before his birth. He supposed contentment must also have bathed his mother in that time when she could rest a hand on her belly and she and her son could converse in code, tapping out musical notations in the blood.'

Leela, a student of the mathematics behind music, falls for Mishka on the way to catch a train in the 'underworld of the red line' in Boston. He is busking with a violin, playing Christoph Willibald von Gluck's Che Faro Senza Euridice. 'She could feel the music graphing itself against her skin, her body calculating the frequencies and intervals of the whole subway symphony: base throb of trains, tenor voice, soft lament of the strings, a pleasing ratio of vibrations. Mathematical perfection made her weak at the knees.'

In the short time between the vibrating and the sex, Leela sees in Mishka a little of her childhood friend Cobb. They had helped each other escape unhappy households before Cobb joined the military and became a contractor in Iraq. Leela sees Mishka as an 'insoluble equation', though the answer is simple enough: he has devoted himself to music to make contact with his Lebanese father, a musician he has never met and who may be a terrorist. The search for music and his father embroils him in a terror plot. When Leela becomes implicated, Cobb re-enters her life as Mishka falls into a second underworld - scenes of torture beneath the streets of Iraq.

Another abyss opens in the pull between the unyielding momentum of the plot and the layers of back story Turner Hospital builds. These characters fall into the chasm.

If the object of Orpheus Lost was to balance literature and pot-boiling suspense, Turner Hospital finds herself tipped into the cauldron. Her characters often do little more than serve as hooks for awkward symbolism and strained prose: '[Leela] had shoved all her sensory memories in a trunk and pushed them down hard and turned the key, but the trunk had sprung leaks.'

Action delivers us to the centre of Iraq, only to be handed a hazy, indirect, faltering idea of the hell Turner Hospital is apparently committed to depicting.