Out here, silence is the dimension in which we float.
From Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital.
I’ve read quite a number of things recently but this was the most wonderful of all, the one most worth writing about. It’s set in the fictional town of Outer Maroo, a place in the red centre of Australia, where everyone has something to hide. The story switches back and forth between narrators, time and perspectives which gives the story a similar dream like quality to her more recent novel, Orpheus Lost.
The locals share the guilt of knowing that no-one ever leaves Outer Maroo, a town that has kept itself off the map by design. Anything but the bible is shunned, post is never posted and petrol is rationed. Driving out is not an option. The wealthy ultra-conservative graziers believe the federal government intend to take away their land, and so build an illegal arsenal fit for Armageddon. Their paranoia of the government is fueled by their fear of the Aboriginals they have displaced.
The silence and secrecy of Outer Maroo makes it the perfect place for a cult. So when the mesmeric and charismatic Oyster walks into town, with 3 perfect opals on his palm and blood on his pants, a cult is what results. With the backing of the graziers he sets up a commune, enslaving back-packers with promise of a better future in return for mining opals; an Eden for the new millennium. Opals which disappear, never to be seen or heard of again. The consequences are devastating.
Turner Hospital’s inspiration was a trip to the beautiful yet harsh Australian Outback in 1993, the time of Waco siege in Texas. According to the story notes in the Harper Perennial publication, she was intrigued by why people follow psychopaths like David Koresh, and she was interested in the other victims, the relatives left behind. The black economy of the Australian opal industry provided an authentic world in which her characters are motivated to behave very, very badly.
A gripping yarn, this book is also about the dangers of insular society, of apathy and silence. To be aware is to be complicit. Knowing without acting is to be morally culpable.
OYSTER: New York Times’ Editors’ Choice and Notable Books List, 1998
finalist for Australia’s Miles Franklin and National Book Awards, 1996
finalist for Canada’s Trillium Award, 1996
Turner Hospital was awarded the Patrick White Award for lifetime literary achievement in 2003.