‘You acquired the habit of disguise and now you can’t shed it.’ This observation, made by a nameless old man to Lilith Goldberg, one of the three main protagonists of The Claimant, lies at the heart of the novel, though it shares that vibrantly beating heart with much else: the implications and intricacies of privilege; the iron grip of lineage; the complexities of naming and identity; the relentlessly resurfacing dramas of the personal past; unchangeable and beyond erasure; and the persistence of the essential self, which no guiles, stratagems or journeyings will suppress or alter.
If this seems a crowded stage, it is, and there is more than can easily be detailed here. Quite early in this dense and intricate narrative, you wonder how it is all going to be held together, and how intelligibility and a sense of direction and development will be maintained through multiplying names, varying manifestations of the same characters, the tangle and inter-penetration of the past, the present, and the possible. Janette Turner Hospital is equal to the challenge: more accurately, she accomplishes it all with an ease that is not only beguiling and attractive, but often almost jaunty. She is a splendid prose stylist in command of her art, and amazingly confident in exploring and testing its possibilities – now a lush sensuousness that never turns ‘purple’, now a sort of electric, sparking precision, and, not least of all her armoury, a free-ranging referencing of literature and art, other stories, atmospheres, characters, colours, moments.