Elizabeth Arthur: Beyond the Mountain; Harper & Row; New York.

Blanche d’Alpuget: Turtle Beach; Simon &Schuster; New York.

Janet Turner Hospital: The Ivory Swing; E. P. Dutton; New York.

by Bryce Christensen

Home, as Robert Frost observed, is that place “where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” But who are the “they” who wait there to take you in? Primarily, they have been women—wives and mothers, in particular. As husbands and fathers, men certainly help to define the home returned to, but their traditional responsibilities in supporting the family by laboring in the fields or marketplace and in protecting it by waging wars often prevent them from being there to take anyone in. Indeed, after extended toil, battle, or travel, men especially need someone waiting to take them in. In the poem in which Frost’s definition is found, the man of the house is away when the Hired Man comes home to die; it is his wife who welcomes him to his last earthly rest. And in a far greater poem, the adventures of Homer’s Ulysses find their end and purpose at the hearth kept by a loyal Penelope.

In the 20th century, however, the Hired Man better have a latchkey to let himself in, and if Ulysses ever gets back to contemporary Ithaca, he’ll be lucky if with-it Penelope left a forwarding address before setting sail in pursuit of her own sexual gratification, professional fulfillment, or self-realization through global exploration. Thus our age is not likely to inspire a new Odyssey; rather it inspires empty and aimless feminist novels of the sort written by Elizabeth Arthur, Blanche d’Alpuget, and Janet Hospital. As Homer did with Ulysses, all three writers take their protagonists traveling to exotic and dangerous places—Nepal in Beyond the Mountain, Malaysia in Turtle Beach, and India in The Ivory Swing. These works can hardly be mentioned in relation to the memory of the Ionian poet, but all three are skillfully written; Turtle Beach is the winner of the Seal Book Award and The Ivory Swing is the Age Book of the Year and is the recipient of the P.E.N. Golden Jubilee Award. Unlike the ancient Greek though, these women do not bend their narratives homeward. In this regard, they have a blind spot where Homer saw clearly.

As a haven where journeys may end, a locus of continuity for human relationships, home simply does not appear in these three novels. For home always means bonds: the bonds of spouses to each other, of parents to children, and of the family to a specific place and a specific tradition of social obligations. These are the “have to’s” of Frost’s lines. Liberation, especially in the militant forms of women’s liberation, means freedom through the breaking of bonds. Never mind what meaning may inhere in those bonds. Thus in Beyond the Mountain, the self-assertive heroine first experiments with adultery, then plans to leave her husband after joining an all-female mountain climbing expedition to the Himalayas. (His death in an avalanche before her departure makes her plans superfluous.) In Turtle Beach a syndicated Australian journalist chases around Southeast Asia, battening her reputation on the tragedy of the boat people while her marriage and home collapse. In The Ivory Swing, Ms. Hospital describes her protagonist’s husband as “cunning and wise as Odysseus,” apparently little aware of the irony of making his Penelope not a faithful weaver who yearns for his return as she preserves the home and resists all suitors, but rather an outspoken writer who endlessly fantasizes about a former lover, despises the provincial college town where her husband has chosen to live, and  longs to flee—alone if necessary—to the intellectual stimulation of a metropolis.

Commitment to children does not appear much stronger or more satisfying in these novels than do ties to spouses. The mountaineeress of Beyond the Mountain has none. The career woman of Turtle Beech ignores hers as much as possible and totally baffles the readers by deciding in the conclusion to fight for custody of them. (If the sensible reader were allowed to serve as the judge in the case, he would rule against her.) The writer in The Ivory Swing does stay with her scholar husband, first in Ontario then in southern India, largely because of a sense of duty toward her children; however, she is imaginatively preoccupied with the attractiveness of other alternatives and with the difficulty of her own self-martyrdom. Not surprisingly, in the end she’s not at all sure she can keep up the emotional trapeze act she imagines herself performing with her husband and offspring: “Will we touch on the next inward arc? Or will we miss?” This kind of performance, necessarily done without a safety net, can easily reduce families to horrid splatterings in the public arena.

All three authors and their transparent creations do perceive the need for some kind of self-sacrifice and participation in a community. D’Alpuget’s central character is haunted by a “sense of moral emptiness” and responds with dumbfounded admiration when a Vietnamese woman feels strongly enough about her children to commit suicide for them. Hospital’s Canadian author grudgingly acknowledges the need to stay with her children and at times experiences a kind of epiphany in her experiences with them in nature. Arthur’s climber, a Western half-Buddhist, faces “the ultimate of fears, to be committed to something, someone, anything at all” while nearly freezing to death atop a Himalayan peak and consequently intuits a mystical union with everyone.

But societies and homes built below 20,000 feet can rest neither upon abstract commitment to anything nor upon mystical union with everything, regardless of how satisfying these airy substances may be to light-headed pantheistic monks and feminist writers. Clearly, the characters in these novels are deeply committed to certain things—a mountain, freedom, professional accomplishment, the advancement of women and humankind. Their attachment to specific people in specific places, especially the people they live with, are much more superficial and impermanent. Despite all the grief and uncertainty that invariably accompany tentative half-commitments within the family, these women are not willing to avoid such turmoil by giving themselves fully to those with whom they share their beds and houses. Always trying “to catch hold of my own life,” each tenaciously resists letting others hold it. Each is afraid to love her husband wholeheartedly because of “fear that he would thus rule me, as if by remote control.”

Not being tied down by a husband or children makes it easier for a woman to see the world, but it makes it impossible for her or her family to ever call any one piece of it her own. Since families without a homemaker must be families without a home, the social earthquake of radical feminism (measuring 9 or 10 on the Rich Her Scale) has left thousands of comfortably housed and well-fed Westerners homeless. Their plight evokes far less pity than that of the impoverished Southeast Asian boat people examined in Turtle Beach, but in many ways it seems more pathetically insoluble. Most of the Vietnamese who left their homes behind took with them an understanding of the importance of family bonds, and therefore they retained the essential power for building new homes in a different location. Westerners who have lost this understanding are the ones truly adrift, with no hope of ever building anything but suburban refugee camps for the spiritually rootless.

Consequently, though the women depicted in these books do maintain a residence, they are as little “at home” there as they are when confronted by the foreign cultures of the Orient. Thus, Ms. Arthur’s protagonist dreams of the Himalayas when in Wyoming and has nightmares of Wyoming when in Nepal. Ms. D’Alpuget’s journalist is neither more nor less at ease when sharing a house with her husband and children than when sharing a Malaysian tour with a handsome and knowledgeable Buddhist guide. Similarly, Ms. Hospital’s woman on the swing feels as out of place in the “small college town musty with propriety and smugness and myopia” where she has lived for years with her husband and children as she does in Hindu India where her spouse spends a year in sabbatical research. What she wants is to live in a big city, any big city that offers “a gritty subway and freedom” and “the ferment of a circle of argumentative friends.” The reader is reminded of the world travelers T. S. Eliot portrays in “The Burial of the Dead,” perpetual tourists of the soul, ever in search of someplace where “you feel free,” but hopelessly sundered from the meaningfulness of being bound to one place, one set of people, or one God.

It seems no accident that the heroine of Beyond the Mountain explicitly expresses a preference for a “nontheistic” religion and that the other two books nowhere allow for God to touch their characters. (D’Alpuget’s protagonist does enter a church once—with an “Abortion on Demand” button on her lapel.) For it is perhaps only in religious ceremony that two people can authentically give themselves to one another, thus creating bonds of genuine union. True, besides the usual minister’s fee, the cost of such bonds is a tremendous sacrifice of freedom, and that is a price modern woman enamored of gritty subways and feminist clichés will never pay. And since the people joined in holy bonds are themselves flawed mortals, the home life thus secured will often prove less than celestial. But if these novels are any indication, the modem alternative is the hell of endless vagrancy.


Mr. Christensen is assistant editor of Chronicles of Culture.