Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital, Harper Collins, $29.95
Set in a near future when suicide bombers strike at will in American cities and people are snatched from the street for interrogation by mercenaries, Orpheus Lost is a tale of love in a time of terror.
Mishka is an Australian violinst who lives in his music, while Leela is an intimidatingly intelligent young woman from the Deep South who is researching the mathetmatics of music. This unlikely pair meets and falls in love in the underworld of the Boston subway when she is drawn to his soulful violin.
With his Jewish background and dreamy vagueness when faced with the real world, Mishka is the least likely terrorist imaginable. When masked men kidnap Leela and question her about her lover’s apparent double life and jihadi connections, she thinks the world has finally gone mad. To make things even more surreal, her hooded interrogator turns out to be her childhood friend, the bizarrely named and deeply troubled Cobb Slaughter.
Follwing a suicide bombing that destroys a bus, Mishka suddenly bolts, making himself look blindingly guilty. He leaves for Beirut with a fake passport in another name and vanishes from a street corner, but Leela still refuses to believe he could be involved in the bombings.
Turner Hospital has taken the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and turned it on its head. Instead of a resolute Orpheus venturing into the underworld to bring back his lost love, it is Eurydice who is the stronger character and who launches the rescue mission.
This is the second of Turner Hospital’s terror books, following on from Due Preparations for the Plague, a chilling retelling of Boccaccio’s Decameron that substitutes hostages from a hijacked plane waiting to choke on poison gas for the revelers waiting for the bloom of the Black Death.
Turner Hospital's writing is evocative and in places beautifully wrought. She brings to life the wet tropics of Far North Queensland, a small and down-at-heel town in South Carolina and a subterranean gulag with equal skill. The supporting cast of characters is pleasingly complex: there is Leela's father, the mad and dying preacher who takes numbers far too seriously; Cobb's father, an alcoholic veteran who was demonised as a war criminal on his return from Vietnam; and Mishka's mother, who perpetrates the myth that an uncle dead for decades is actually playing his violin just upstairs.
The only real sense of a character with something lacking comes with Mishka. Though devoted to his music and to Leela, compared to other, stronger characters, he comes across as somewhat limp and weak. Sometimes he appears to be little more than a symbolic victim waiting meekly to be sacrificed
Orpheus Lost returns to the writer’s favourite themes of disappearance, loss, redemption and the rubbery and difficult nature of truth. The lines between reality, illusion and delusion, between right and wrong are blurred. Despite Mishka's shortcomings, this is a satisfying, intelligent read that never loses faith in humankind, despite the difficult and trying times against which it is set.