Due Preparations for the Plague
I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of Janet Turner Hospital before I found this amazing novel in a bookshop in Perth, while I was grabbing a few Australian books to bring home to the US. Now I'm counting my blessings at all the books of hers I have yet to read.
JTH lives in the US — she's a professor of English at the University of South Carolina — though she was born in Melbourne, brought up in Brisbane and still considers herself a Queenslander.
Due Preparations for the Plague is one of the most gripping novels I've read in years, a very intelligent psychological thriller that is as tautly written as it is tense to read. While the main action takes place over five uncomfortable, claustrophobic days in 1987 — when a terrorist group hijacks an Air France flight from Paris to New York — the narrative shifts and swings dizzyingly through time, location and from person to person, at times as bewildering for the reader as its ghastly events are for the characters involved. And on top of that is the question of who can be trusted, and who's watching whom ...
Like the plague of the title (borrowed from Defoe), terrorism and war are inevitable occurrences, yet how can we ever be ready for them, let alone come to terms with them?
The terrorists are persuaded to let all the children off the Air France plane: 'Passengers reach out to touch and caress as the little ones are pushed down the aisles.' We see them in 1987 and again in 2000, once they've 'grown' from damaged, tortured youngsters into damaged, tortured adults unable to get past the cataclysm that so shaped their lives. They keep in touch via the internet and try to piece together any information about the hijacking they can lay their hands on, in the hope of healing/catharsis/redemption. Or an understanding, at the very least.
But can the truth make any difference to them? As kids, their release from the plane inspired high hopes of a happy outcome for all those left on board. And as adults, they're still clinging naively to hope.
In this novel, published in 2003, two years after 9/11, JTH makes incisive observations about both sides in this drama and draws chilling parallels between American intelligence operatives and the terrorists. CIA recruits, for example, are told by their instructor:
'In our profession (making the world safe for stability, as we like to say; and sometimes, relishing our own esoteric wit, making the world safe for moral systems) it is a given that chaos is all; that order is not only arbitrary but evanescent, and that it is the task of a small strong circle of like-minded people to establish and guard it. Exactly which system of order we sustain — morally and politically speaking — is immaterial. We support the system most likely to stay in place.
'Hence our dilemma. I am not speaking here of personal disintegration, or of that futile and panicked attempt to withdraw from the field ... This is not a field from which you can retire.
' ... Retirement from this career is not an option. We keep your soul in an escrow account. Take note: of the twenty of you in this room, the creme de la creme who have made the cut and registered for this course, nine of you will leave us before the end through one of the two trapdoors I just named. The wages of sin in the Intelligence community are erasure. I know you understand this. If you did not, you would not have reached this class.'
It's suicide on both sides of the equation, then.
JTH sprinkles the text with quotations from all manner of sources and references to others throughout history who were tainted by 'the madness of true believers'. Shakespeare, the Bible, Boccaccio, Defoe, Buddha, the Ancient Greeks and a host of others all get a look-in in this crackerjack read.