Epic in­ten­tions over­whelm a queen of fic­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Peter Craven

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.