Thursday, January 2, 2014

starting the new reading year off with a bang: Oyster, by Janette Turner Hospital [Australia]

W.W. Norton, 1999
400 pp


This book isn't "new" in the sense that it is recently published, but it's one of those that is a new read for me. It actually continues my little self-imposed "fictional cult" challenge from December, but I just finished it yesterday.  This author is a new one for me as well, although I have a couple more books by this writer in my home library, and after reading this book, I've made a point to pull them out and put them on the near-future stack.  It's positively eerie and I loved it.   Now on to the discussion.

"People see with the madman's eyes. For true madness has this gift, and this potency, that it makes its own complete world. It has its own space. Others can enter it."

A man known only as Oyster literally stumbles into the small opal-mining town of Outer Maroo, Queensland a few days before Christmas at 2:23 one afternoon.  Clad all in white, his clothing stained with blood, he comes into this little off-the-map outback town and things are never the same again.   Neither are the inhabitants of this hidden drought-ridden world of its own, where many of the people are happy to be away from the prying eyes of the government.   It is a town cloaked in its secrets, which are not made privy to the reader at the outset. What is made very clear is that something terrible has occurred  in this place; as the novel unfolds, just what's happened is revealed little by little.  Before Oyster's arrival, the inhabitants of Outer Maroo -- -- the cattle graziers, the opal miners and the members of the Living Word fundamentalist congregation all got along just fine.  But once the people allowed themselves to be "seduced" by this man,  described by one person as being like "one of those bacterial forces that blindly and ruthlessly seek out the culture that will nourish them,"  life completely changes, and for the worst.   This new, uneasy coexistence is also threatened by the "foreigners" who come into Outer Maroo, at first the swarms of Oyster's followers looking for something meaningful in their lives, and then the ones looking for loved ones who had come there and had never been heard from again. Slowly the "foreigners" begin to outnumber the townspeople, a situation which has potential to threaten  those who hold the biggest secrets and the most to lose  -- and as young Mercy Given notes, when "Jake Digby occasionally arrives with passengers, ... no passengers ever leave with him again."  A teacher brought in for the 13 schoolchildren is only one of their number; the arrival of two more who'd come to search for their children at the beginning of the story will be the last. 

In this eerie, sometimes verging on the edge of surreal novel, much of what the reader knows is transmitted via Mercy, whose father once led the Living Word congregation.  He had built his congregation on the notion that God speaks quietly to each man, and that "No one, no other living soul, can hear what God says to you."  With the coming of Oyster, though, Pastor Given's words and his position are  usurped by a man who sees the potential of Oyster's usefulness, Dukke Prophet, a man with plenty of secrets of his own and a paranoia that becomes infectious; the Book of Revelation is his testament, hellfire and brimstone are his weapons, and the church is his personal zone of power. 

Oyster is an excellent novel, one that not only looks at the lives of a group of people living in the outback, but also examines the madness connected with power, secrecy, religious mania and money. Definitely recommended, this is one of the most thought-provoking works of fiction I've ever read. If you're expecting something ordinary in terms of novel structure, you won't find that here -- the story is not told linearly, but in bits and pieces of looking backward.  They do jump out in 3-D, however, and to me, that's much more important than finding someone likeable.  The characters aren't warm and fuzzy people, so you may not find people here with whom you can identify.  Looking over reader responses to this novel, they range from truly excellent to phrases like "sleep inducing" or "boring to the point of frustration;"  obviously it's not everyone's cup of tea. However,  I found Oyster to be an excellent novel and I can't wait to get to her other books on my shelves.  Amazing. Simply amazing.

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