These stories of family trauma find their echoes in the elements.
In ‘Moon River’, the chapter of memoir that comes at the end of this collection of short stories, there is an image of the Brisbane River swollen and raucous in flood. It occurs six months after the death of Janette Turner Hospital’s mother, and is a powerful symbol of the uprooting rush of grief.
Throughout this collection characters’ emotional states are reflected in the weather, or described in terms of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or the isobars on a weather map.
In the first story, ‘Blind Date’, a boy experiences intense joy anticipating a reunion with his father in terms of inundation:
Floodwaters press him. He is floundering. He goes over the lip of the falls. Pamela touches his wrist. He is drowning in happiness.
In a later story, ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman’, a mother grapples with the tragedy that has befallen her son, describing it in terms of a natural disaster:
They are not supposed to come this far north, his mother said to our mother. Tornadoes are not supposed to strike here. And our mother said: Derek’s a tornado-survivor too. You don’t know what he went through.
At times it seems emotional turmoil can trigger events in the atmosphere – or vice versa. In ‘Hurricane Season’, Leah reflects on a love affair that might have been:
Initial phase is a simple matter of smouldering tropical temperatures and turbulence. Latent heat is released into the atmosphere which becomes more buoyant. Instability increases. A chain reaction is set in motion and a cauldron of destructive winds spins into orbit and out of control … The room is steamy, the air is bright with the flash of passionbird wings. Leah sees gold, cobalt, emerald green. She smells jasmine. Their bodies give off latent heat, they are buoyant, floating far above any known life, orbiting through the treetop canopy where orchids run mad.
Here is a sensualist’s eye for the natural world. But more often in these stories the emotions are not bright with the promise of passion but dark with the weight of past wrongs, violence, or abuse.
Paradoxically, for a book dedicated to a father, negligent, cruel and outright criminal fathers inhabit many of these stories. Even the memoir, ‘Moon River’, includes an absconding great-grandfather who, when finally tracked down by his adult son, rejects him.
But alongside the suffering is also survival, and one of the most moving stories is that of Rufus in ‘Salvage’. Named after a ship wrecked during the Second World War that brought a bounty of flotsam to the small coastal community where his mother lived during her pregnancy, Rufus has an intimate relationship with the sea. When his father returned from the war, he went to work at the nearby whaling station:
Rufus remembers the day his father took him to the flensing deck at Tangalooma. He was eight years old … He remembers sobbing in his father’s arms. He remembers that the ocean was made not of water but of blood … He has never forgotten the dirges of the whales who escaped the harpoons.
It is this event, rather than the death of his mother two years later, that haunts him and provides the story’s most devastating images. At some point afterwards he stops speaking.
As an adult, still mute, he takes tourists out on whale-watching cruises. It is, perhaps, a kind of atonement. As he watches his passengers’ reactions to the whales’ song:
Even normal people, Rufus thinks, with a vaunting flicker of hope, can sometimes understand a language they cannot speak.
The daughter in ‘The Republic of Outer Barcoo’ can clearly see where her father’s behaviour will lead. Since she was a baby she has been on the run with him as he has set up one secessionist enclave after another, moving west from the Deep South of the United States and ending up amid the red dust somewhere inland of Cunnamulla. It has been a life of police sirens and gunshots and Jodie is old enough, and smart enough, and daring enough, to plot an escape from it.
The protagonist of ‘Weather Maps’, who as a child finds friendship with another girl in the visiting room of the gaol where her father is held, also plots escape, but when help comes to her it has a devastating effect.
Janette Turner Hospital is a master of the short form, and in a few words can deliver an entire scenario and its sinister resonances, as in the opening line of ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman’:
On one night, the worst one, and the last one before Katie ran away, there were eighteen of those calls.
There are striking images in each of these stories, whether the bloodied floor of the flensing deck, a teenager crouched smoking by a dumpster at night, or a small boy imagining riding the treetops like giant waves during a hurricane.
In Janette Turner Hospital’s hands the forecast may be turbulent, but it is also vivid, lyrical and at times transcendent.
Forecast Turbulence has been shortlisted in the Fiction category of the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It has also been shortlisted in the Fiction category of the Age Book of the Year Awards, which will be announced on 23 August 2012.
Janette Turner Hospital Forecast: Turbulence, Fourth Estate, 2011, HB, 240pp, $22.99
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