Oscar Wilde’s words—“Truth is rarely pure and never simple”—could stand as an epigraph for Janette Turner Hospital’s fourth novel, Cha-
rades, a book that is as much mind-tease as story, as much about what did not happen as what did. Hospital has seemed on the verge of writing such a novel for some time. Ever since the Australian-born writer burst onto the Canadian literary scene with The Ivory Swing, which won the Seal first-novel award for 1982, her richly inventive, highly intuitive prose has strained to escape beyond the borders of ordinary perceptions and narrative style. Now, with the example of certain Latin American and European writers before her, Hospital has broken through into her own convoluted and fascinating fictional wonderland, where truth is something to pursue but never quite catch.
Hospital’s heroine, Charade Ryan, is a young, footloose Australian woman whose global wanderings are driven by an intense desire to assemble the known fragments of her past into some
kind of meaningful picture. Above all, she wants to find her father, Nicholas Truman, a philandering university lecturer from England who years earlier had a fling with Charade’s mother, Bea. As the novel opens, Charade’s search has brought her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—the Cambridge university where Hospital herself is currently in her fourth term as writer in residence. There, Charade has an affair with a brilliant professor of theoretical physics, Koenig. Most of the novel consists of their pillow talk as Charade, who seems to prefer conversation to making love, spins out various possible versions of her past to the bemused physicist.
There is something desperate about Charade. It soon becomes clear that she is a compulsive talker who must keep the words flowing in order to feel real. “If I stop talking,” she tells Koenig, “I’ll vanish like camphor.”
And for all her avowals that she is looking for the truth, there is something evasive in her monologues, too, as if perhaps the real truth about her life were something that she would rather avoid. She discovers it anyway: at the end of the novel, she finally stumbles onto some traumatic revelations about her birth. And while the information may not be what she was
looking for, at least it offers some clues as to why Charade is so driven and unhappy.
Charade’s desperation lends the book an aura of feverish brilliance. And her intellectual curiosity allows Hospital to make the bravest and most complex use of scientific theory in a novel since John Updike’s Robert’s Version. In Koenig’s explanations of his work, Charade finds a tenuous justification for the elusive, paradoxical quality that reality has for her. Koenig tells her how, in science, two researchers will often come up with contradictory yet mathematically demonstrable results. Such situations led Koenig to call the possibility of knowing anything for certain “a useful fraud.”
Charades is a compendium of such frauds, some more useful—or entertaining—than others. Charade tells several highly contrasting versions of how she came to be. At times, she seems to disappear altogether while her story
flows from the viewpoint of other characters, including her bawdy, lower-class mother— whom Charade labels “The Slut of the Tamborine Rain Forest”—and Bea’s more reserved, scholarly girlfriend, Katherine Sussex. The two carry on a running rivalry over Nicholas, who in turn is hopelessly bound to a beautiful but highly neurotic Holocaust survivor. As the narrative moves through and around those characters, the effect is at once disorienting and exciting, rather like participating in a magic trick with a masterful magician.
Yet, for all its sleight of hand, Charades is an uneven achievement. At times, Hospital’s cleverness seems to be a smoke screen hiding an absence of anything important to say. Part of the problem is that Charade’s exchanges with Koenig become a series of predictable gestures and attitudes. As well, Hospital, like her own heroine, frequently dances away from an anecdote before its narrative impact has been solidly established. Still, many incidents—particularly those evoking childhood—are as vibrant and compelling as the Australian landscape in which they are set. Katherine recalls how, one day on a school outing, she climbed a mountain by herself and experienced a moment of ecstasy. “She had a sense of herself as a solar whiteness,” Hospital writes, “without shape, without limits in time or space, pulsing with a kind of exaltation whose only analogue might be the dramatic rush of wind at the rainy edge of a cyclone.” It is in such passages, in such language, that Charades reaches beyond mere intellectual brilliance and touches something of the paradoxical quality of being alive.
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