Book Review: Orpheus Lost

Here’s another one I had to read for my English degree. You wouldn’t know I almost qualify for one by the amount of spelling and grammatical errors in some of my posts, but that’s what happens when you usually write after an exhausting 12 hour day with a screaming toddler hanging off you refusing to go to bed and, if it’s a good night, a glass of wine (preferably three).

Orpheus Lost is another piece of critically acclaimed Australian fiction, written by Janette Turner Hospital. Now, since it’s critically acclaimed you’ll probably guess that I didn’t love it. You’d be correct. But, I did not hate it anywhere near as much as I hated The Slap.

Because Orpheus was a musical genius, in case you forgot.

Because Orpheus was a musical genius, in case you forgot.

Orpheus Lost is hailed as a modern day retelling of Orpheus rescuing Eurydice from the underworld. This time, it is Eurydice as Leela the genius mathematician who must rescue Orpheus, as Mishka the genius musician, from the underworld, in this case a very literal underworld. While I am vaguely familiar with the Orpheus/Eurydice myth, I felt the continual references to Orpheus (Leela calls Mishka Orpheus because he’s so talented at music, the aria ‘Che faro senza Eurydice’ is the epitome of emotion, *cue eyeroll from me*) were obnoxiously heavy handed. My husband, the most uncultured person on the planet who has no interest in classical mythology or music, would have picked up on it. Mishka is totes Orpheus guys! Oh. Em. Gee! Leela/Eurydice has to save him, what a headtrip! Leela actually makes that exact observation, *sigh*. If you have to try that hard, you’re not doing it right. Or maybe I’ve just absorbed one too many lessons on deconstruction.

The story is told through the eyes of three characters, Leela, Mishka and Cobb, also a mathematical genius who grew up with LeelaLeela lives a life of pondering the beauty of math as it relates to music and when she meets Mishka at a train station as he’s playing, you got it! Che faro senza Eurydice! She sees numbers and gets high and asks him out. He states he’s an awkward social recluse, so does she, then it’s a few years later and they’re living together. Some bombings happen  and because this is a post-9/11 world Mishka is implicated because he hangs out with some middle eastern types. In a totally contrived twist of fate, Cobb is the person investigating Mishka’s involvement and by extension, Leela’s. Psych! Cobb is royally pissed that Leela isn’t having sex with him and the running commentary about how much he wants to see her afraid is rather disturbing and verging on sociopathic. Bad stuff happens, kidnapping, torture, death, redemption. The end.

The major flaw with this book was that each supposedly genius person is so off the charts smart that they have a tenuous grip on reality. In some parts it is actually very difficult to separate their fantasies from their reality.  Then there is the oft-repeated fact that they are socially awkward. In Mishka’s case, too true. He answers questions by playing the violin instead of with words, which would drive me batshit crazy. In Leela’s case, she’s built up to be wholly and solely into the pursuit of maths, yet all of the males in the story constantly refer to her as being a slut who will open her legs for anyone. In the chapters told from Leela’s perspective, we get absolutely zero sense of this, so it’s completely bizarre the way they all throw it out there at odd moments, usually when she’s not giving them what they want. Cobb apparently also has a boner for maths, but it’s obvious that he really has a boner for Leela and gets off on abusing his power in the military, a very strange place for a math savant to end up.

I kept waiting for the haunting and poetic language that showed up in all the reviews I read (stupidly, before I chose this for my damn assignment). I didn’t see it. I wonder if people were transfixed with the way she kept saying things like “pure mathematics”, or “perfect *insert math term* and then said something to relate it to music? I kinda got the sense that the writer doesn’t really understand math that well, and from someone who left high school with the very distinguished grade of an E+/Very Low Achievement (E was the lowest grade possible) that’s a big accusation to make.

I’m pretty sure that I get the point that she was trying to make – that in a post 9/11 world, is there a line you can draw in the sand between what is wrong and what is right when it comes to the safety of your country? How far is too far? What happens to the innocent ones caught by circumstance? How easy is it for an action to be misinterpreted? I can see that so clearly, yet I don’t think it came across anywhere nearly as strong as it could have been if the characters weren’t stuck so far up their own arses indulging their brilliance to be likeable or efficient storytellers.

Ugh. Literature sucks.  Why isn’t Game of Thrones required reading? (don’t be a smartarse and say because it’s too long. A good book is never too long).

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Orpheus Lost

  1. Had a writing teacher who said love letters should never be revised. His point was that some forms of writing should come straight out of the bottle, undiluted or tweaked.
    Think some of our posts belong in that category, too. The passionate letters we send to strangers.

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