‘The Claimant’ by Janette Turner Hospital – The Monthly Book

June 2014

Welcome to the Monthly Book.

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.

The Claimant – Janette Turner Hospital

This month’s Monthly Book is The Claimant by the Australian author Janette Turner Hospital.

It’s a book about spies and collaborators, about art and religion, and its focus is a fictional court case in the late 20th century over a family fortune and the search for a lost heir.

Its concern is the way our identities change, even in the simplest ways, depending on the stages of our lives, who we are with, what the expectations are of us – our class, our politics, our nationalities.

Told in an intricate and complex way, The Claimant is a hard novel to summarise. I should say, too, that it’s a mystery thriller, so I won’t give too much away and ruin your enjoyment once you get your hands on the book. It’s a feat of plotting, and I imagined Janette Turner Hospital holding all the plot points and identities like a huge hand of cards.

As Janette explains in our Monthly Book interview, she was intrigued by the 1870s case of the Tichborne Claimant, who was an Australian butcher claiming an entitlement to a title and estates in Victorian England. Roger Tichborne had been on a ship lost at sea off the coast of Brazil in 1854, and his distraught mother claimed she recognised the butcher as her long-lost son. The claimant was subsequently convicted for fraud. (If you’re interested in learning more about Tichborne Claimant, Robyn Annear, whose book The Man Who Lost Himself was one of Janette’s sources for The Claimant, recently wrote a piece on the case for the Monthly.)

Janette’s interest in the case led her to investigate the practices of a series of con artists and frauds, the subterfuges of international spies, and the courageous and noble sleights of hand necessary to resist vicious political systems.

Janette Turner Hospital’s interest in class was established very early:

“I didn’t realise that I was lower working class until I went to university. And that’s the nice thing, actually. If everyone around you has a beat-up old used car and every kid you know at school or at high school is roughly from the same background … I certainly never felt underprivileged or really knew anything about classes with more income until I went to university. And it was a fairly big culture shock to realise that my behaviour was considered uncouth and embarrassing … I had no idea how to eat at a restaurant or that you got to choose different dishes … I’d always been watchful, even from elementary school, because I grew up in an extremely cloistered religious family, so my first culture shock happened actually when I hit primary school, and everybody talked about the races and I can remember that when the Melbourne Cup was run even the teacher would bring a transistor radio onto the desk but everybody would make sixpenny bets on the horse. I didn’t know what the Melbourne Cup was.”

So how did she summon her descriptions of a titled French aristocrat’s chateau and the milieu of wealthy American families like the Vanderbilts and the Cabots?

“... having become very observant since primary school, I am a very observant watcher and listener, sort of a scavenger of the ways other people live. And I happened to have had the good luck to cross all the boundaries, like a stealth bomber.”

In 1978 Janette Turner Hospital published her first short story in the Atlantic Monthly. Her first novel, The Ivory Swing, won the Canadian Seal Award. Most of her books have been shortlisted for awards, and she’s won the Davitt Award for crime fiction, the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and the Patrick White Award. She has an honorary doctorate from the University of Queensland, and for more than ten years she held an endowed chair as Carolina Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Now, as Carolina Distinguished Professor Emerita, she mentors students and teaches one course each year.

Watch the interview

Read the transcript