Orpheus Lost – Janette Turner Hospital

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In Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital turns the story of Orpheus and Euridice on its head. This time it’s Orpheus who goes missing and Euridice who descends into the underworld to find him.

Leela is a motherless southerner who escapes to Boston from her very small town through her mathematical genius. She leaves behind a slightly cracked Pentecostal father, the sister born as their mother died in childbirth, and a lifelong best friend, a boy named Cobb whose mother committed suicide and whose father has been prone to drunken, violent rages since his return from the Vietnam war.

Mishka is a very eccentric Australian from a family of refugees who escaped the Nazi death camps and settled in the rainforest. Music is the center of their broken lives, as it was in a cultured, prosperous existence before Hitler. Mishka grows up playing the violin and believing his unknown father is dead. Music propels him to Boston where he takes up the oud, a sort of Persian lute, and plays his violin deep underground in the subway. When Leela hears the heartbreaking lament from Orfeo ed Euridice, she is hypnotized and she and Mishka become lovers.

As Leela works on a post-doc research proposal, Boston is hit with a series of terrorist attacks and Mishka grows increasingly anxious and begins staying away from the apartment. Then Leela is picked up for questioning by a government-contracted security firm and interrogated for hours in a locked room—by an emotionally brutal and calculating Cobb. Mishka may be linked to a subway bombing—his father may be alive in Beirut and is also suspected of being a terrorist mastermind. Mishka disappears and Leela, unmoored in this landscape of alien information, descends into hell to find him—and the truth.

Orpheus Lost is a brilliant and beautifully written thriller. The emotional entanglements of the characters are, at first, very disturbing but quickly draw you into a murky realm where music is both a death sentence and the only hope. The story is strongly anti-war, anti-violence and anti-fairytale. Mishka’s innocence leads him into depths he can’t manage. If Leela gives into doubt, she will lose him forever.

Hell is made in the hearts of people damaged by an unforgiving world. The myth of Orpheus is an ancient and powerful story, reworked in this novel with contemporary events that simply underscore what has always been true—our heroes, heroines, lovers and lost souls are flawed and fragile. But they are valiant and resilient, too. The music is an audible expression of love and longing. The courage that will prevail is an unblinking gaze upon painful truths–and a stubborn refusal to look back.

Orpheus Lost: A Novel   Janette Turner Hospital | W. W. Norton & Company  2007


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