Epic intentions overwhelm a queen of fiction
The Claimant By Janette Turner Hospital Fourth Estate, 609pp, $29.99
JANETTE Turner Hospital is one of our most distinguished writers, and in recent years — with books such as Due Preparations for the Plague and Orpheus Lost and, most recently, the collection of stories and memoir in Forecast: Turbulence — she has been writing like the kind of master who knows how to take the serious form of the novel and make it crackle with tension and burn with the kind of energy that makes a plot seem like a revelation, not just a scaffolding. She has shown the sort of mastery of plot and its transfiguration associated with writers such as Graham Greene, who confound the distinction between the artistic and the popular.
In her new novel, The Claimant, she attempts the largest-scale form of fiction, the 600-pager with a wartime treacheries, a court case involving enigmas of identity and a huge inheritance, and a general tangle of intrigue and exotic complication. It is a serious and concerted attempt to orchestrate a big subject with colour and action but, alas, it lacks the dramatic realisation, momentum and pulsation of her best work.
Hospital says in a somewhat laborious and self-conscious afterword that until quite recently she had not heard of the Tichborne case, about the Australian country butcher who laid claim to an English aristocratic title. It’s weird because it’s one of the most famous law cases and certainly the most notorious to have come out of this country. Anyway, she read Robyn Annear’s The Man Who Lost Himself and the Tichborne puzzle worked its influence on this odd, rather cumbersome novel.
The Claimant begins in the mid-1990s with a US court case in which it appears possible that the long missing and presumed dead heir of the Vanderbilt family may be living as a cattle breeder in northern Australia. A couple of dodgy people, one nicknamed Lucifer, hovering around this central intriguing action are then lost for hundreds of pages — and so is the intrigue about the claimant.
The bulk of this novel is concerned with the relationship of an American boy and the gardener’s daughter who grows up with him on the estate of his mother, a French countess.
They are born at the end of World War II and much of the sinister and ghastly backdrop to The Claimant concerns the German occupation, collaborationism, the long trail of responsibility and guilt. Our hero and heroine are educated together (at the countess’s insistence and expense by an English Jesuit tutor) and at some point in mid-adolescence he is shipped back to the US to attend a very expensive boarding school. The gardener’s daughter gets educated too and ends up in the US in the turbulent 60s as a budding art historian.
Meanwhile, the young heir befriends the girl’s brother and becomes a sort of apprentice butcher, plying his mate’s trade or art, though in secret. Then there is a brutal murder he thinks is his fault. Back in the US, at the back of the Vietnam foment with Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and all the rest, he meets and befriends a working-class Boston Irish guy who he thinks should be at Harvard instead of him. This working-class hero is drafted to go to Vietnam and ends up being killed. In a rage to atone, our hero (who has been engaged in frequent, futile encounters with his childhood playmate) enlists, only to disappear, missing in action, presumed dead.
Some hundreds of pages later, more than two-thirds of the way through the book, we return to the mystery of whether a bushy in Australia can really be the Vanderbilt heir. Is it allowed to generate much suspense? Well, no.
The Claimant is a weird, lopsided book in which not a great deal happens s-l-o-w-l-y and much of what does seems tangentially related to the main part of the plot. There’s a man and a woman, they share an unusual upbringing in France — from opposite though congruent