Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital
W. W. Norton & Company, 1998
Hardcover, 400 pages
W. W. Norton & Company, 1998
Hardcover, 400 pages
Stories do insist on being told. Even the stories of hidden lives and towns and opal reefs.By cunning intention, and sometimes by discreet bribery (or other dispatch) of government surveyors, the opal-mining town Outer Maroo has kept itself off maps. And yet people do stumble into town, because the seduction of nowhere is hard to resist. Two strangers reach Outer Maroo, searching for a stepdaughter and son who have mysteriously disappeared. There is a heavy, guilty feeling to the hot, parched-dry town.Mercy Given and Old Jess (everyone calls her Old Silence) watch from Ma and Bill Beresford's store. On the verandah of Bernie's Last Chance, the drinkers wait to take stock of the foreigners, before they return to their cattle properties or their sheep stations or to their stake-outs in the opal fields. Dukke Prophet crosses the street from The Living Word Gospel Hall. Young Alice Godwin whimpers.Outer Maroo. Population 87. Here two opposing cultures - the rough-diamond, boozing, fiercely individualistic bush folk and the teetotaller, church-going fundamentalists - used to coexist peaceably.Until the arrival of the cult messiah Oyster.
Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital is brilliant. Set in the isolated Australian Outback town of Outer Maroo, the towns inhabitants are struggling to survive a heat wave, drought, and an awful smell that seems to hang over the town. You know something ominous and dreadful has happened but you have to wait while the suspense builds and events are slowly revealed. Many of the residents of the town are just as secretive and, perhaps, delusional as the many young followers of the cult leader who calls himself Oyster. There is a cult, an illegal opal trade, some dark secrets and the terrible knowledge that foreigners are not welcome and mysteriously disappear in Outer Maroo.
Hospital carefully and skillfully develops her characters through some incredible prose. The writing is really incredible as you have to carefully piece clues together, sometimes from very dream-like inner thoughts of characters, to start to make sense of what has happened and is happening here. The terror felt by the characters is palatable. Much of the apocalyptic story is told through the thoughts of young teen Mercy Givens, but it isn't told in a linear narrative. The thoughts of other characters add to the chorus trying to tell the complete story.
The plot of Oyster, originally published in 1996, shows influence from a couple cults - Jim Jones and Jonestown in 1978 and especially David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in 1993. Knowledge is powerful and dangerous. The natural and enforced seclusion of the inhabitants of Outer Maroo combined with a suspicion of strangers, and a predisposition to believing in charismatic leaders all combine to make for an explosive story with a moral.
The quality of Janette Turner Hospital's writing is what carries this novel, as much as her brilliant plot. Very Highly Recommended
If rain had come, things might have turned out differently, that is what I think now; but there were children in Outer Maroo who had never seen rain. opening
So there was opal and there was Oyster. pg. 11
There were far too many foreigners around.
And then one day, abruptly, there were none...
The stench, on certain days, was worse after that. pg 14
Dorothy Godwin knows, and does not know, this. She has the gift of forgetting.
There is much to forget in Outer Maroo. In Outer Maroo, forgetting and honour are as crucial to survival as a good artesian bore.
Dorothy Godwin pushes the cardboard core of the unravelled bolt of cloth across the counter. 'Mercy, the blue.'
The blue streams silkily through Mercy's fingers.
The eyes of Mrs Dorothy Godwin move from face to face. Everyone watches everyone else, warily, eye to eye. Everyone understands that such mutual vigilance is necessary. Mercy thinks of a story in the school reader: the one of the little boy who kept his fist in the dyke all night. If anyone slacks in the hard communal duty of forgetting, she thinks, who knows what sort of inundation will drown the town?
Alice folds herself over her stomach and whimpers.
'Well,' her mother sighs. 'It can't be helped.'
No, people murmur.
What's done is done, they sigh; and any stranger would instantly conclude: here is a group of people bound by guilt; they dread, and constantly expect, retribution. Or, conversely: here is a group of innocent people dazed by awful circumstance; they know that the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly and unjustly against them; they wait haplessly for a harsh and wrongful judgment to be handed down.
'What's done is done,' Dorothy Godwin says.
As though a secret signal has been passed, there is an exodus, carefully unhurried, of Godwins and of several others who have recalled pressing business at far reach. Beyond the verandah, red dust and exhaust fumes plume around their idling cars. As soon as they have seen the new arrivals, they will leave, but they need to know who is coming. They need to take stock. After that, they will go.
But why is it, Mercy wonders, that they will all drive back to their cattle properties or their sheep stations or to their stake-outs in the opal fields, and not one of them will simply drive away? And why is it that from time to time, not often, certainly, but there has after all been a slow trickle of visitors since ...
... there has been a steady trickle of visitors in these past twelve months since Oyster's Reef disappeared ... since people began to come looking for the missing ...
So why is it that Jake Digby occasionally arrives with passengers, but no passengers ever leave with him again?
That thought catches Mercy off guard, and she breathes quickly and hugs herself in the manner of Alice Godwin. Jess puts her hand on Mercy's shoulder. 'Hush,' she murmurs, or seems to murmur. 'It will be all right.' pg. 22-23
There may be more survivors, we hope there are more survivors, there will certainly be survivors out on some of the properties....
We could never outstrip it, not even with both petrol tanks full and Major Miner's foot to the floor. It is the Beast of the Apocalypse run amok.
This is the Day of Wrath pg. 41
It happened about two years ago. Oyster and Oyster's Reef were still with us. Brian (Mercy's brother) was still with us. Susannah herself was still with us.
It was the day she was so suddenly "transferred'. pg. 46
"It's curious how close hate and love are, there's just a membrane between them. Did you know that?" pg. 94