By Janette Turner Hospital
Norton, 358 pp., $24.95
Janette Turner Hospital's new novel, "Orpheus Lost," dramatizes harsh, current war headlines through the forebodingly resonant framework of Greek legend. Her hot-blooded, edgy characters scramble for survival and love in a world at odds with imagination, intelligence, and integrity. Hospital's 12th book, like much of her work, is characterized by a rich, varied appreciation of place.
Leela-May Magnolia Moore meets Mishka Bartok one day in the Harvard Square T station. Mishka's exquisite, unearthly violin reverberates through the underground tunnels. "His body merged with the music and swayed. He was slender and pale, his dark hair unruly. A small shock of curls fell down over his left eye."
There's an immediate, palpable attraction between the gifted Australian musician and the mathematician, who resembles a radiant Rossetti portrait.
Leela, an intellectual refugee from the rural town of Promised Land, S.C., where her father, Gideon Moore, is a Pentecostal preacher, is doing a postdoc at MIT. Mishka has fled an idyllic, but suffocating, rainforest home in conservative Queensland to pursue a PhD in music at Harvard.
Deep South American sizzles with Deep North Australian. Uniquely placed to evoke this fiery attachment, Hospital grew up in Queensland, taught in Cambridge, and is now professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Her books often examine dislocation and expatriation. "Orpheus Lost," with its marriage of mathematical theory and musical notation, is particularly reminiscent of her wildly imaginative "Charades."
Here, "background" characters and settings are not echoes, but vital, profound presences. Leela maintains deep feelings for her small Southern town, her family, and her former boyfriend Cobb Slaughter, who now serves in a private security firm on terrorist alert. Mishka's dreams flutter through the lush Daintree rainforest, where he lived with his Hungarian Holocaust-survivor grandparents, reclusive uncle Otto, and his wistful, widowed mother.
Hospital's chilling portrayal of the unchecked power of mercenaries in Cobb's private security force is all too timely: kidnaps, renditions, torture, "ghosted" prisoners lost in the secret labyrinths of international militias. She is equally unflinching in revealing Leela's memories of racist violence in South Carolina and her current encounters with academic misogyny. Mishka discovers he is a descendant of both the Jewish and Arabic diasporas. Suddenly one day he also learns his father is still alive. Marwan Rahal Abukir summons the long-lost son to Beirut.
Mishka's abrupt departure for Lebanon elicits dramatically opposite responses from Cobb and Leela. Cobb, sure that Mishka has been recruited by his father, a renowned jihadist, sets out to apprehend them both. Frantic Leela knows Mishka is innocent, that he has just made a sentimental - if foolish - pilgrimage to embrace his resurrected father and to play the Persian oud for him. Marwan's unexpected response to Mishka's musical offering is one of many shocking surprises.
All of Hospital's main characters are shape-shifters, alternating roles in the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Mishka is both Orpheus, the mythic musician, and his beloved Eurydice, lost in the underground. Cobb is the lecherous Aristaeus, who sets Leela on the path to exile, as well as Orpheus, looking for Leela. Leela is Orpheus, searching for Mishka, and also Eurydice, being sought by Cobb. Each of these exiles from the promised land is plagued by private experiences of Hades. Hell materializes most tangibly for one of them in Baghdad's underground cave prisons. Leela remains haunted by "Orpheus and Eurydice," the Gluck opera Mishka played in the subway, and one of its songs,"Che farò senza Euridice? What will I do without that which I cannot do without?"
Most of the author's contemporary and archetypal references enrich her romantic, literary thriller. Occasionally, the coincidences and premonitions are too easy. And the metaphors become labored.
Overall, though, this a rich, wise, alarming novel, energized by Hospital's masterful suspense as Leela's frenzied hunt for Mishka intersects with Mishka's nostalgic father search and Cobb's desperate quest for love and self-respect. All three refugees are ultimately released from their fixations and wind up in unforeseen places. "The cautionary words above her desk hovered at the edge of her mind: Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell."
"Orpheus Lost" poses provocative challenges about individual agency in public and private spheres. Hospital understands that we each write the headlines. She leaves readers feeling hope and grief and a terrible sense of urgency about our own lives at this fragile moment in history.
Valerie Miner's latest novel is "After Eden." She teaches at Stanford University. Her website is www.valerie miner.com.