Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital


Orpheus Lost (2007) is a powerful novel of our dystopian now. A now of surveillance, rendition, secrecy, of punishment without trial, without justification even, at the whim of people employed by, set loose by the state, to terrify us all into submission, into the acceptance of regimes throughout the ‘free world’ at odds with everything we once believed about freedom, equality, democracy.

Janette Turner Hospital (1942- ) is an Australian author resident for most of her working life in north America. I haven’t read, or remembered reading, enough of her work to judge whether her writing is mostly Australian or American. This work is set in Boston, which I think is her current home, but has an Australian component.

The title of course references the legend* but in JTH’s version, the musician is lost and his bride must attempt first to find and then to recover him.

Sometimes, in dreams, when the beginning began again, Mishka would warn her: “Don’t follow me, Leela.” He would lift the violin to his chin and begin to play. He would turn his back and walk away from her, walk down into the subway tunnels, deeper and deeper, the bow rising above his left shoulder and falling again, the notes drifting back, plaintive and irresistible. “Leave me alone,” he would say. “Don’t follow me.”

Leela is a grad student, a brilliant mathematician escaped from the mediocrity of life in rural South Carolina, studying the mathematics of music. She hears a violin deep in the subway and follows the notes to their source, Mishka Bartok, himself an escapee, from an eccentric musical family living in a wooden castle on the Daintree River in north Queensland.

Leela’s friend and only scholastic rival at school had been Cobb, son of a maths teacher mother and a drunken, violent Viet Nam War vet father. The mother hangs herself and is found by Cobb.  Leela too is motherless,  her mother dying giving birth to her sister, her father a preacher and unable to control her as she runs wild in the town, Cobb hiding in the bushes to better observe her sexual adventures.

Mishka has grown up living with his mother, his father unknown, and her parents, Jewish refugees from Hungary, and a reclusive violin playing great uncle who lives behind a closed door on the upper floor of the secluded ‘castle’, but despite a difficult time at school, eventually makes his way to study music composition in Boston.

After that first meeting Mishka and Leela live together but Mishka begins to be more and more absent for long periods, and then one day Leela is seized, bundled into a black car and taken to an interrogation room. Slowly we become aware that Cobb, having been in the Army is now a private contractor for the CIA and that he has been using his position to keep Leela and Mishka under surveillance, particularly of course, their bedroom.

Slowly, over 360pp, the tension builds. Mishka is determined to identify and locate his father; Boston is subject to repeated incidences of terrorism; Leela follows Mishka and finds that he is hanging out with Islamists; Leela’s and Cobb’s fathers are both dying and, separately, though more or less simultaneously, they make their way back to their home town, Promised Land, SC. Mishka disappears.

[Mishka] confessed that he was in possession of hidden knowledge and he was keeping that knowledge hidden from the gods, though he understood it would be plucked from him.

Sometimes he said: “My name is Orpheus,” and then he realized that the snarling shapes in the room were Cerberus and his fierce brood of pups.

He tried to explain that he had not descended into the dark world of Cerberus to steal secrets. Love had brought him. He wanted to know if he could love his father and if his father could love him. He had come to call love to himself with his oud. If he could play his oud, if he would be permitted to play for Cerberus …

His answers were always wrong and brought punishment.

More than this I cannot reveal, except that this is a terrible story told in the most wonderful prose. Please, read this book and be very, very afraid.


Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus Lost, Harper Collins, 2007. Audio version Bolinda Audio (10 ¼ hours), read by Edwina Wren

* Orpheus was such a fine musician that he could charm the gods. When Eurydice is set upon by a satyr, falls into a nest of vipers and dies on their wedding day Orpheus must go down into the underworld where Hades and Persephone agree “to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.” (wiki)

9 thoughts on “Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital

  1. Hmmm, I abandoned this audio book a couple of years ago. I don’t think it was the book, just the wrong time for me to read it (listen to it). I have since bought Due Preparations for the Plague and thought I’d try that. I feel a “connection” to Janette Turner Hospital as we went to the same high school.


  2. That’s a good connection to have. I only read one Australian poet, Alan Wearne, and that is because we went to the same school. Hope you get back to Orpheus Lost, perhaps next time you take a long trip, the second half is very intense.


  3. I’ve read quite a bit of JTH including this and Due preparations, both of which I enjoyed immensely. More of her work is set in North America than here. The ivory swing is her most autobiographical and is a good read. I remember thinking Charades was a little overwritten, perhaps, but that was a long time ago. I liked Borderlines more though like Charades it works her title metaphor hard.


    • Interesting about the ‘title metaphor’ because I thought the same about Orpheus Lost, the story on its own would have been enough, but Mishka is forever playing ‘Orpheus’ music (Gluck and Mendelsohn) and references Orpheus during his questioning.


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