First published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 26 May 2014
Janette Turner Hospital is well known for beginning a book with the offer of a complex riddle. In a dark and delicious tale where characters have multiple names and identities, The Claimant follows suit as a literal and puzzling game of who’s who.
What role does class play in identity? What role does identity play in happiness, and what bearing do the identities of others have on the way we define ourselves? Why and where must we be guided by a moral compass?
After a string of untimely deaths, the fortune of the obscenely wealthy Vanderbilt family is up for grabs and keenly monitored by aristocrats and gossip columnists alike.
This well- researched tale takes us to richly drawn settings. It is a pleasure to spend time in each: a tense war between dignity and secrecy in the French countryside, aristocrats and con artists play hide-and-seek in Manhattan, and a mysterious farmer tries to forget it all in the remote Australian outback.
The most enchanting moments occur in the inseparable childhoods of central characters Capucine and Ti-Loup. Capucine – the daughter of French Resistance devotees – is the picture of tenacity and a hero for the ages. Class divides, despite being an overt presence in her life, are both irrelevant and ludicrous to Capucine. Her disregard for social hierarchy is the envy of Ti-Loup, son of a reclusive French countess and future heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.
When an adolescent Ti-Loup becomes entangled in a scandal, he is sent to live with his estranged father in a Manhattan penthouse. Joining the lofty ranks of an elite private school (Turner Hospital gives readers full voyeuristic privilege here), he becomes disarmingly aware of the absurd power inherent in his bloodline. But it is the scholarship boys he admires. Haunted by the horrors of his childhood, Ti-Loup – a talented mimic – disappears into a life among the working class and begins a long and torturous road to absolving the sins of his childhood.
In distinct contrast, Capucine finds herself crossing over from a childhood on the farm to Manhattan’s upper crust. Adored by the countess and legally adopted into a family of art collectors, she is a reluctant untouchable. Interestingly, her journey has nothing to do with ladder climbing and everything to do with a genuine love of art and devotion to the ones she loves.
Capucine and Ti-Loup are wrenched apart and drawn together again and again despite being observed, detained and blackmailed by elusive con artists and malicious gold diggers.
Despite the initially cryptic nature of the narrative, the reader is kept safely in the loop. Just when a twist in the road threatens to topple our grasp on the story, Turner Hospital steadies the wheel with a well-timed hand. She does this often – and with impressive confidence – repeating a hint at just the right moment.
Characterisation is occasionally heavy handed: when Marlowe assumes Capucine will have a white wine she unnerves him by ordering a Scotch ‘straight up… no ice’ (the book is otherwise subtle and entirely successful in its attempt to upend and disobey gender norms) and the reaches of Ti-Loup’s mimicry feel far-fetched at times. Minor glitches such as these are continually saved by careful craft and heady symbolism. Of particular note: a vivid scene in the cutting room of a butcher shop is so captivating it must be read more than once.
The riddle novel is a risky premise: always in danger of being too cryptic or easy to solve. Towards the end of this story Turner Hospital sidesteps this pitfall by disowning the intellectual puzzle and embracing the moral one: mysteries dissolve, answers come easily to light and the real question emerges - how do we begin to forgive, release, love or relate to these chameleons?
Here is a book that reminds us what it is to be under the spell of a master of her craft.