Academic journal article Hecate

Janette Turner Hospital's the Last Magician: 'A Feminist's Nightmare'?

Academic journal article Hecate

Janette Turner Hospital's the Last Magician: 'A Feminist's Nightmare'?

Article excerpt

Janette Turner Hospital's novels do not engage with any singular feminist agenda. Indeed, Laurel Bergmann suggests that Turner Hospital's commitment to feminism is 'constant' but 'shifting',1 and she links characters in Charades to specific types of feminisms: Kay to an 'egalitarian' liberal feminism that seeks equality with men, Bea to 'cultural' feminism that valorises the qualities of women, and the forever-wounded Verity to `what is sometimes called victim feminism'.2 Not only do characters relate to the various feminisms but, for Bergmann, Turner Hospital's novels embody the ethos of particular developmental stages in the evolution of feminism: The Ivory Swing exemplifies the `consciousness raising' of the seventies; Tiger in the Tigerpit captures the `inversion of values' inherent in cultural feminism, and Charades exudes a postmodern feminism which `seeks to deconstruct all binary oppositions'.3

Bergmann is not the only writer to observe that Turner Hospital's representations of feminism are complex. Some even find that her work seems to contest a feminist commitment to seeking empowerment and public recognition for women (in whatever areas specific agendas may prioritise). Helga Ramsey-- Kurz, for example, believes Turner Hospital's female characters fail to act continuously in the public sphere. Their quests remain private.4 Jennifer Strauss states very clearly that Charade's search for the father is `an element that is highly problematic in feminism'.5

Turner Hospital's 1992 novel, The Last Magician, may quite justifiably draw similar comments from critics but perhaps the most interesting observation, from a feminist perspective, is the emphatic suggestion from Kate Temby that it is 'a feminist's nightmare'.6 This description is based on the fact that after almost three hundred and fifty pages of intrigue and pursuit, the narrator reaches a conclusion that apparently works against any public recognition and acknowledgement of women as subjects and agents in their own right. The narrator stands and reflects on what she has learnt in her quest for justice and decides:

There are things we know. And there are things we don't realise we know. And there are times when we decide it is better not to find out what perhaps we unconsciously know.... Nothing can ever be known for sure.7

Disappointed in this apparent conclusion, Temby suggests that because the narrator denies `herself knowledge [she] denies herself power.'8 Disturbed about the `unresolved tensions and paradoxes' and the way in which the novel `appears to privilege disorder', she asserts that while '[a]pparently proposing an emancipatory politics in its writing of the marginalised into the centre of the text, it actually enacts further marginalisation'. 9 For Temby, then, the nightmarish quality of The Last Magician rests in its link to the all too familiar and recurring experience of being silenced and thwarted. For feminists of all persuasions, this is a 'nightmare' that does not confine itself to the hours of darkness. It is a lived experience that has become a point of departure that propels feminist agendas towards social change: The Last Magician, however, with its silenced, self-mutilating, and predominantly absent protagonist, does not appear to be moving in this direction. It is a dark novel.

The phrase 'a feminist's nightmare' is drawn from the novel itself (327). It is a label given by the narrator Lucy (an ex'prostitute' turned barmaid turned documentary maker)10 to another similarly qualified character, Sheba (Temby's `woman least prone to self-deception').11 The important difference between Sheba and Lucy (to which I will return) is that Lucy tags documentary maker onto her curriculum vitae while Sheba, a salt of the earth pragmatist, consciously rejects anything 'arty' (7) that might critique marginalisation or examine the power relations that permeate the narrative. `We got beer on tap and the world's still turning' (7) is Sheba's response to Lucy's support of Gabriel and Charlie's dangerous search for Cat, a woman who went missing in mysterious and violent circumstances many years previously. …

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