Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Janette Turner Hospital's The Claimant

This 600 page monster has left me sort of flabbergasted and confused. 

I just can't figure out what I think of it. Half the book is an utterly beguiling story of a boy from a wealthy, aristocratic background who grows up in France in his mother's chateau, and who befriends the plucky daughter of his mother's caretaker. The children are home-schooled by a young classically trained Jesuit priest (of dubious sexual inclinations) and both are revealed as highly intelligent. Their relationship deepens. Both characters are warm and intriguing and very engaging. It's the 1950's and they are children of the French Resistance. It's the heart of the book, very dramatic, and I loved it. 

The other part of this novel, however, is a major let-down. In fact the first 120 or so pages are all over the place. We're in the land of today's trashy media, as vulgar as reality TV. Strange characters come and go and we're left unengaged. We're talking the Vanderbilt family fortune and the grasping herd of misfits and uglies desperate to suck on its teat. Hospital's gone overboard - there's even a Bernie Madoff!

The French boy is a Vanderbilt of integrity who is offended by it and wants nothing to do with it. 

The book is his journey from riches to rags. As Hospital says in her Author's Note at the end 'Only now that I have finished the novel have I realised that I have been overturning an American literary archetype. The Claimant is The Great Gatsby in reverse.'

There is a completely bizarre Australian connection. The French boy, desperate to escape his identity and past, turns up in later life at the end of the novel as a farmer in Queensland. The French girl joins him. This is so contrived as to be embarrassing. It is cloying, sentimental and cringeworthy, and I got the real sense that this Queensland born and bred author was just indulging in that sin that besets so many - a bit of Queensland boosterism. 

There's melodrama. There's gothic. There's even this line: 'They made savage love, like tigers' (p546). 

Oh please!

(Here is an excellent review in The Australian by Peter Craven. Here is a lame review by Lucy Nelson in the Sydney Morning Herald, who can't even spell the name of the main character!)


No comments:

Post a Comment