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Authors: Janette Turner Hospital

The Last Magician

THE LAST MAGICIAN


The
Last Magician
is unashamedly dense with ideas … It is her finest novel to
date, surpassing even the excellent
Borderline,
and should establish her
as one of the most powerful and innovative writers in English today.”

Times Literary Supplement

“The author proves herself a magician with words and narrative
structure … Impeccable, sensuous prose and a fiercely intelligent
imagination.”

Publisher's Weekly

“A brilliantly layered, complex and
profound work … an allegory of the soul's journey toward light.”

Toronto Globe and Mail

“The Last Magician
is highly imaginative, tough minded, and intelligent … language is Turner Hospital's
greatest strength. Her prose shimmers, and her delight in word play is
infectious … An engrossing and powerful novel.”

Sun Herald

“She fills her novel with evocative settings, characters we care
deeply about, and language that is entrancingly lyrical … An ambitious,
intense and satisfying book.”

New York Times Book Review

“Janette Turner Hospital has a rare sense of her own work, pacing
herself so every achievement is full, mature and
glowing. She is as magical with her words as the knowing magician of her title.
Applaud the conjurer.”

Sunday Age

“The most sensuous artistic novel of the
year.”

New England Review of Books

“With refreshing disregard for literary decorum, Janette Turner
Hospital grasps Dante's central image for the Inferno and makes it her own …
a vision wide enough to tackle themes that range from the intimate to the
universal.”

Literary Review
(UK)

“Few Australian writers throw out such a challenge as Janette
Turner Hospital; few repay acceptance of the challenge with such tangible and
topical rewards.”

Adelaide Advertiser

“Heady, engrossing and rather wonderful … High-voltage prose … The
real magician is of course the author.”

Spectrum
(UK)

“Insightful and original,
The Last Magician
poses the
burning questions — about sexuality and repression, about ‘innocence' and its
relation to violence, about the masks power wears when it demonizes the Other —
on a wide and richly textured screen.”

The Boston Globe

“Janette Turner Hospital writes with powerful beauty … A story of
high tension and terrifying allure … Her writing has perfect pitch.”

Los Angeles Times

“We marvel at how Hospital makes her novel work on so many
different levels — as psychological thriller and detective story, as
sociopolitical commentary as both a jaggedly postmodern novel and a
compulsively readable one … Hospital's prose showers over us like a torrent,
leaving us amazed, breathless, and perhaps a bit terrified.”

New York Newsday

“Its
essence is an emotionally charged meditation on loss and absence, on the head's
ability to deny what the heart knows.”

Maclean's Magazine
(Canada)

THE LAST MAGICIAN

Janette Turner Hospital
was
born in Melbourne in 1942, but her family moved to Brisbane when she was seven
years old. She has taught in Queensland high schools, and in universities in
Australia, Canada, USA, England, and Europe. Her short stories and her novels
have won a number of international awards, and she is published in ten
languages.
The Last Magician
was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin
Award in 1993 and the Adelaide Festival National Fiction Award in 1994. It was
listed in the
New York Times Book Review's
“Most Notable Books of
1992” and in
Publishers Weekly's
Best 16 Novels of 1992. In 1999,
Janette Turner Hospital was invited by the University of South Carolina to be
the successor to the late James Dickey, and she now holds a permanent position
there as Professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence.

Other
books by
Janette Turner Hospital

Novels
The Ivory Swing
The Tiger
in
the Tiger
Pit
Borderline
Charades
Oyster
Due Preparations for the
Plague

Short Stories
Dislocations
Isobars
Collected Stories
North of Nowhere, South of Loss

For my daughter
Cressida

With special thanks to A.A.
whose restaurants and wildly imaginative photographs
gave me the idea

BOOK I

Charlie's Inferno

The first message is that there is disorder.

James Gleick

There is no question that there is an unseen world.
The problem is how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?

Woody Allen

1

In the middle of the journey,
I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way
was lost.

No. That is not the way to put it.
In the middle of darkness, I came to the black fact that there
was
no
straight way — no way on, no way out. This knowledge engulfed me, a thick sack
over the head. Suffocation was the least of it.

Ah, how hard a thing it is
to tell of that wood.

Do
you see the two boulders where the rapids make a sort of courteous ruffle of
detour? That was where the bones were found. They were wedged deep down,
pushed,
prodded under the rocks with the blunt end of something far more complex
and disturbing than hate, and they might have been missed for another ten
years.

But I mustn't think of that
now. I cannot start there.

The wood is dark, and full of the
soft rot and manic growth we call rainforest. The rainforest has always spawned
secrets. Light itself is clandestine here. Under the matted canopy the sun
becomes furtive, it flickers, it advances by stealth, it hides, it is coy, it
sneaks down through the tangle of treetops, creepers, leggy bird's-nest ferns,
lianas, orchids, battling its way earthwards through layers of aerial clamour, slithering below ground fungi to breed green yeast.
The rainforest smells of seduction and fermentation and death. It smells of
Queensland.

Like the
dark wood itself, which can burgeon into anyone's sleep, Queensland is fluid in
size and shape, it ebbs and flows and refuses to be anchored in space, it
billows out like a net that can settle without warning over its most wayward
children and pull them home. There is no escaping it. It is always larger than
would appear on the map. At this particular point, however, in the middle of
the dark wood, it is known as Cedar Creek Falls and its coordinates are finite
and precise: latitude 27 degrees and 19 minutes south; longitude 152 degrees
and 46 minutes east of the Greenwich meridian.

Here are directions: from the City
Hall and King George Square in the heart of Brisbane (capital of the state of
Queensland, Australia; population 1.3 million), follow Ann Street one block to
George and turn right, proceed to Roma Street, then continue along the
north-west artery toward the State Forest. The artery snakes through lush but
well-manicured residential suburbs and mutates through various names: Kelvin
Grove Road, Enoggera Road, Samford Road. Depending on traffic, you should reach
the suburb of Ferny Grove, end of the railway line, in just under an hour.
Somewhere between Ferny Grove and Samford Village, a
mere five kilometres further on, you will cross that
indistinct and provisional line where the city of Greater Brisbane could
perhaps be said to end, and primordial time could be said to begin.

Perhaps the crucial point is
where the road surface changes.

Not
far beyond Samford, you will cross Cedar Creek, and
here, if you wish to locate the falls (which are really many miles of rapids
bumping and churning down an escarpment of the D'Aguilar
Range from Mt Glorious) you must turn off the road and follow an unpaved detour
until it ends, and then you must leave your car and enter the dark wood and
keep going until the straight way is lost.

When
I say I came to myself in that black wood, I mean it literally I mean that
without any warning, in a darkened theatre on the other side of the world, I
stumbled over my own feet as it were, bumped into myself on a cinema screen,
sitting on one of the two boulders in the spuming
ladder of Cedar Creek Falls. The shock was so great that I blacked out.

This happened in a theatre in
London, at a little cinematic hole in the wall, and when I came to myself all
the rainforest paths and all the best laid paths in the world led straight to
chaos. Dazed, I wandered about, got lost in the Underground, surfaced at Tottenham Court Road, and phoned Catherine.

Catherine,
I wanted to say, I've just seen both of us in one of Charlie's films. I've seen
you, and Charlie himself, and Cat and Gabriel, and His Honour
Robinson Gray. The whole bang lot of us, Catherine.

Catherine
and I work together, but I'd just got in the day before (I'd been away for
several months, New York, Boston, another documentary) and I hadn't managed to
make contact yet. For us, this was unusual. I dialled
the number of her townhouse in Harrow.

I let the phone ring ten
times.

No answer.

There had been no answer the night
before either. She had not been at the studios that morning, she was not away
on location, where was she? I found myself inside the little pub that was three
steps from the telephone booth. I made myself sit over a drink for an hour,
refusing to panic.

Catherine, I needed to say. I
miss
them, Catherine. I'm scared.

We
baffle people, Catherine and I. She is, I suppose, practically old enough to be
my mother, not that I ever think of us in terms of age. But people talk. People
find our closeness odd, I don't know why. We work together (well, for the same
television company anyway; and frequently on the same projects) and we are
often seen together in the evenings as well. People talk.
They do have men
from time to time,
people whisper,
so they're not, you know
… And
no, we're not. But we need each other. The bond between us is intense.

I made
myself sit in the pub on Tottenham Court Road for an
hour then I phoned again, first the studios (no; no sign of her, no message),
then Harrow.

Still no
answer.

I
panicked. I completely flipped out. Not Catherine too, I thought. I was getting
used to people disappearing, I was getting horribly used to it. There are too
many missing people and too many damn deaths, I thought. The whole bloody world
is crowded with absences.

Much
has been fomented by panic: wars, stampedes, stock-market crashes, and
worldwide depressions, to name a few. Great accidents and remarkable trains of
events from little anxieties grow, and when I found myself staring blankly into
a travel agent's window, when temptation presented itself in a poster of the harbour and the bridge and the Opera House, I hesitated
only for seconds, yielded, went inside and bought a ticket home. MasterCard,
Qantas, London-Singapore-Sydney

This was extreme. I knew I was
being extreme, but something Charlie once said was buzzing inside my mind like
a fly in a bottle and it was clear I wouldn't be able to shut the din off till
I went back and settled things. In any case, when you travel as much as
Catherine and I do, living on the move half the time and treating the world as
an office, there is nothing so very unusual about arriving home one day and
leaving again a day later. It happens often: we unpack, do the laundry, repack,
head for Heathrow and the next assignment. I didn't
try to call Catherine again for fear of what I might find out. Once I got to
Sydney, I'd decide whether to head up to Brisbane or not. First, I wanted to
find out if Sheba, at least, was still around.

She was. She was still in Sydney She was still barmaid at the very same bar, though its name
had changed several times. “Well whad'ya know?” she said. “If it isn't Lady Muck herself swanning back in.” But she grinned and tapped off a schooner and stuck it in front of me.
“High bloody time,” she said. “Whyn't
you send a telegram and give me a day to get a party up?”

“Sudden
urge, Sheba,” I told her. “I saw one of Charlie's films in London. I
saw all of us in it. Well, not you, but the rest of us. It's given me the most
dreadful ideas, I had nightmares all the way out on
the flight. It's Charlie's bloody black magic again.”

“Bullshit,” she said.
“It's jetlag. It's those travel sickness things you take. You mix them
with alcohol, watch out!”

“Sheba,” I said,
“have you seen it?”

“What?
Are you kidding? One of Charlie's arty things? Do you
think I'm bloody likely to?”

“It's
knocked me for six. I feel as though we're all lost in a dark wood, and there's
no way on and no way out.”

“You
mean we're going round in circles?” she said. “You just figured that
out? Jesus, Lucy, get a hold of yourself. Brisbane's right
where it always was, and so's Sydney, and Catherine's
in London (I saw her on TV the other night), and the quarry's spreading, they
reckon, but so what? We got beer on tap and the world's still turning.”

“And
what about Gabriel? What about Charlie and Cat?”

“Oh well,” she said,
“there's too many missing people, I'll give you
that. But there always bloody well has been, hasn't there? You're not gonna make the evening news with that.”

“And what about Robinson
Gray?”

“He
keeps coming around, naturally,” she said. “He's got the Order of
Australia now, isn't that a blast? He got his picture in the paper for the
Queen's Birthday whad'ya-call-'ems.
He thinks he's Lord High Mucky-Muck now, if you please, but I still call him
Sonny Blue.”

“Look,” I said. “Charlie's put this thought inside my head, it's buzzing like a
bloody mosquito in there and it scares me to death. I think I'm going to ride
the ferries for a while.”

“Suit
yourself,” she said. “But don't blame
Charlie. We've always known what's what, you and me.”

I stared at her.

“We
know and we don't know,” she shrugged. “And
you
don't
want
to
know, Lucy Look, the problem with people like you and Gabriel, you just won't
admit the way the world works. Cat and Charlie, they knew. Catherine
knows.”

“I'm going to ride the
ferries,” I said.

“You're
not gonna change anything,” she said.
“You're just gonna make yourself sick for
nothing, or get yourself killed.”

“I'm going to ride the
ferries,” I said.

And then at
Circular Quay, what did I see but another poster for Charlie's film? Now was
that a coincidence or wasn't it? Charlie believed the world was thick with messages,
you could hardly move for secret codes in Charlie's world. I found the theatre
and saw
Charlie's Inferno
again, and I blacked out again — I can't
explain that, since I already knew what to expect, although there were
certainly a few telling details I'd missed in London on the first time round.
Perhaps it was my febrile imagination projecting translations onto the screen.
Or perhaps it was something else,

Whatever Sheba says, I believe
it was part of Charlie's magic.

And whatever it was, I blacked
out.

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