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Posted on 23 Sep 2014 in Fiction |

JANETTE TURNER HOSPITAL The Claimant. Reviewed by Michael Richardson

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claimantAbove all, The Claimant is an examination of identity.

In the author’s note that follows her new novel, Janette Turner Hospital writes that ‘The Claimant is The Great Gatsby in reverse.’ It is an apt description. Spanning decades and continents, told from the point of view of multiple characters, and at over 600 pages when all is said and done, Turner Hospital’s novel is as epic as Fitzgerald’s is finely honed. Like Gatsby, it is a story about wealth, identity and restless longing, but this book centres on the desire to escape wealth and privilege rather than obtain it.

For Gwynne Patrice de la Vallière Vanderbilt, descendent of an industrial tycoon and a courtesan entered into the Dictionnaire de la noblesse by an enamoured French king, the constraints of parentage push him to continual reinvention. Even as a child, he takes on the name Petit Loup (Little Wolf) and hunts for a different life:

After his mother has bid him goodnight, Petit Loup climbs out his window and makes his way to the gardener’s cottage, where he has supper for the second time. He spends the night on a palliasse in the loft … and climbs back into his own bedroom at the chateau before dawn so the servants won’t see.

Slipping between names and accents but unable to erase his family, traumatised in childhood, Vanderbilt spends his life as if ‘on the lip of a mudslide’. The question is whether he survives the slide to the bottom.

In a reworking of the Tichborne Case, the Victorian legal scandal of identity and inheritance that spanned Australia and England, The Claimant opens on an unfolding drama in a New York courtroom in 1996. At stake is a big chunk of Vanderbilt wealth (ironically, since the historical family is the great cautionary tale of financial ruin) and at issue is the identity of a mysterious man in a video shot somewhere in rural Australia. Is he the heir to a fortune? A fraud? Or somehow at once both and neither?

Unravelling the answers to these questions, and the questions they lead to, provides the narrative impetus for a plot that moves between a small French village shortly after World War II, a privileged boys’ school in upstate New York in the 1950s, Manhattan, Harvard and Boston in the 1960s and 1990s, and a rural Queensland town in 1996. These locations veer between the opulent (an art-filled chateau, a penthouse apartment, the exclusive private boys’ school) and the modest (a groundskeeper’s cottage, a self-made farm, a butchery in working-class Boston), but in so doing establish the tension between privileged unhappiness and humble selfhood that runs through the novel.

The novel’s chief artifice lies in the narrative framework set out in the chapters of the first of the six books into which the novel is divided. Marlowe, a Bernie Madoff figure imprisoned for fraud but with an oversized intellect and an ego to match, narrates from the present day his recollections of the 1996 trial. These in turn serve as an opening into further memories, most of which are not his own. Rather, he takes up the task of telling the stories of two people whose lives intertwined with his: Lilith Jardine, object of his desire, and Vanderbilt. Marlowe – or Chameleon, or Lucifer, as he sometimes calls himself – casts about through media clippings, remembered conversations and self-aggrandising monologues to reset the scene of the case of the Vanderbilt claimant some two decades before.

With this memory-within-fiction structure not mentioned again, it is easy to forget that this is as much Marlowe’s story as it is that of the others, and the workings of his memory shape the narrative flow:

No court ruling is requiring me to keep to strict chronological order and certainly nobody’s memory works that way. Memory: now there’s an inexhaustibly interesting topic. It’s never linear, never, but holographic, a multi-directional detour-rich extremely faulty retrieval system.

As the novel progresses, the idiosyncrasies of his first-person narrative – sometimes leaping into third-person, often diverting into observation and aside – disappear into the familiar free indirect style of the realist novel. It is a shame to lose the vibrancy of Marlowe’s voice, but this stylistic decision allows the complex narrative to proceed unimpeded.

Forever shifting names and personal qualities, the young vicomte Vanderbilt befriends the equally young Capucine (later Lilith Jardine), child of the vintner and groundskeeper of his mother’s chateau and a hero of the Resistance. The boy becomes a second son to her father and receives his first new name, Petit Loup. In turn, Capucine, who believes that ‘life’s primary requirement’ may be ‘to impose a tolerable meaning on randomness’, becomes Mesuline, de facto daughter of la comtesse. Taught the mysteries of 17th and 18th-century art, she evolves into Lilith, globetrotting consultant for the auction house Sotheby’s. This in turn becomes her cover to aid victims of repressive regimes, building up her ‘store of dark knowledge’ of the ‘horrific things some human beings were capable of inflicting on other human beings’.

But Vanderbilt continually runs in the opposite direction, oppressed by his mother’s religiosity and his callous father’s drinking, womanising and belittling, and traumatised by witnessing murder with Capucine. Desperate for another kind of life, he becomes enthralled with butchery (a metaphor for the visceral work of dismantling the self if ever there was one), but this sets in train his years-long separation from Capucine and, eventually, his radical disavowal of his identity. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot ‘ever know to which team he belonged or if any team would ever acknowledge him as a member’.

At times, Turner Hospital stretches coincidence and opportunity to incredulity – Capucine/Lilith’s endless stumbling into good fortune, or Marlowe’s secret and all-too-convenient job with the CIA. But she uses the world of wealth and privilege depicted throughout the novel to powerful effect. Voyeuristic delight at the glories of wealth and privilege ­– something akin to flicking through a Vanity Fair magazine spread on estates in the Hamptons ­– works in tension with the stultifying atmosphere, hypocrisy and often-awful people of that world.

Above all, The Claimant is an examination of identity. Capucine, Vanderbilt and Marlowe each change names repeatedly, constantly seeking but not quite succeeding in reinventing themselves for new times and places. Places and moments recur too – Manhattan apartments, conversations between characters, traumatic events. Each time, they are both the same and different, drawn with skill and care by Turner Hospital to show:

… what a skittering thing memory is, the way it branches and swerves like the Mississippi splaying out across its flood plain … a capillary network that can leak into hollows and coves that time forgot.

These recursions form a refrain, the layered milieu of the questions at the heart of the novel: Can a person simply choose to be something else? Can people escape their ‘tribe’? Is someone today who they were years before? Can memory ever be trusted? Can the truth of the past, including past selves, ever be known?

These are questions that Fitzgerald asked too, but Turner Hospital’s explorations do not match The Great Gatsby’s perceptive intensity of focus. Did the novel require shoehorning in Bernie Madoff and the excesses of Wall Street, or the fight against the torture of repressive regimes? These are worthy subjects, but are either sketched too briefly or become unnecessary elaborations of themes already addressed by the core of the narrative. Similarly, the Australian outback seems oddly forced, wonderfully rendered as it is, and perhaps gives more about the author’s ex-pat Australian identity than is essential to the novel’s plot, much like Australia’s appearance in her 2007 novel Orpheus Lost.

Still, this is a subtle and often beautiful novel of flowing prose, sympathetic characters, and careful treatment of trauma and loss. Combined with an intriguing narrative, it makes for a moving, gripping read. The mystery of the Vanderbilt claimant’s identity runs until the last pages, but the clever denouement pales beside the intricate layerings of memory and identity that accumulate over the course of the novel. The Claimant sets lofty ambitions for itself and does not quite meet them – but they are set high enough that to say the novel falls a little short is hardly a criticism at all.

Janette Turner Hospital The Claimant Fourth Estate 2014 PB 624pp $29.99

Michael Richardson is an academic and writer. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He can be found on the web at and on Twitter @richardson_m_a.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.