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There was no television or radio in the household when Janette Turner Hospital was a small girl. It was suburban Brisbane in the 1950s, money was scarce and life was closed and quiet and conservative. "There's corn in Egypt yet", her parents would say when a little extra cash came in - as devout Pentecostal Christians, they had a Biblical metaphor for every occasion, and would read aloud passages from the scriptures every evening over dinner.

But when young Janette started school, she discovered a whole new world of words, learning to eavesdrop and notice language as closely as she looked at faces. It was perfect training for her future as a novelist, and one of modern literatures best observers of human foible.

"I sort of learned within a bubble of a subculture," the bestselling author says of her childhood. "When I went to school there was a full range of vocabulary I knew nothing about so I felt like an alien. From my earliest days at school I had to become a very acute observer in order to figure out how to behave and to fit in. So I guess that set the pattern for my life."

Having written two decidedly dark tales in recent years - her acclaimed 2003 thriller Due Preparations for the Plague and 1996's exploration of religious cults, Oyster, Turner Hospital was full of good intentions for her new book, Orpheus Lost. "I thought, 'I'm just going to do a mellow, happy novel this time. I'm just going to do a love story'. But as with the previous two", she says on the phone from her home in South Carolina, "because I'm very hooked into the social and political structures where I'm living, events just kind of seeped into the story, I'm afraid."

The American South has been home to the 65-year-old academic and author since 1999, when she was appointed Distinguished Professor of English literature at the University of South Carolina, so it's not surprising Orpheus Lost should be coloured by both the sounds and the worries of the Southerners she lives among; religion, race, terrorism, war and torture. Just as Due Preparations For The Plague beguiled readers with its pre-9/11 prescience, Orpheus Lost taps into ballooning public fears about life in the Iraq war era, probing the secrecy surrounding extraordinary rendition, ghost detainees and Abu Ghraib along the way to examining what can happen to individuals when errors are made in the name of national security.

True to Turner Hospital's initial promise to herself, the book is still a love story albeit with an unexpected twist. It revolves around the story of Leela, a mathematical genius from South Carolina, and her love for Mishka, an Australian musical prodigy who busks in the subway. But in this imaginative re-telling of the Orpheus myth, it is Mishka who goes missing not long after Leela discovers him secretly visiting a mosque. Leela, too, finds herself snatched off the Boston streets to be interrogated by her disguised former childhood sweetheart, Cobb, also a mathematical prodigy, who now has a covert role in national security.

In following Leela's descent into hell searching for her lost lover, Turner Hospital unravels a compelling tale of private secrets and public lies, taking readers from the Daintree forest country, in North Queensland, where family secrets about the Holocaust first shadowed Mishka's young life, to the underground torture chambers of Iraq, the streets of Boston, and the sultry faded realms of Southern Carolina, where Leela has left behind her own secrets.

Turner Hospital left Queensland for Boston in 1967 when her Australian husband, a Sanskrit scholar named Clifford Hospital, was awarded a Harvard fellowship; and ever since she has lived a peripatetic life. She worked as a librarian at Harvard before completing her Masters of Arts in medieval literature at Queen's University in Canada, has lived with her family in India, and taught at universities across Australia, Canada, France and the US. "My life has been very geographically dislocated, and a way of dealing with that is passion for the physical landscape. But I also think I just learned very quickly to be an acute observer of social and political systems", she says.

Along the way she penned seven internationally acclaimed novels and several volumes of equally celebrated short stories. Her first novel, The Ivory Swing, set in the village in South India where she and her family lived in 1977, was published when she was 40, and won her Canada's $50,000 Seal Award in l982. The Last Magician, her fifth novel, was listed by Publishers' Weekly as one of the 12 best novels published in 1992 in the US and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, as was Oyster, her sixth novel. Due Preparations for the Plague won the Queensland Premier's Literary Award in 2003, the Davitt Award for best crime novel of the year by an Australian woman and was short-listed for the Christina Stead Award.

"I've always been intensely interested in people without political agendas who get caught up in political events and have to negotiate their way through it", says Turner Hospital, "and in a generic sense, that's been the subject of all my novels, and specifically this one."

She conceived of Orpheus Lost while standing on the subway platform in Boston's Harvard Square, listening to student buskers from the nearby Julliard and Harvard schools of music. "It's rather lovely", she recalls, "I've always enjoyed listening to them and I always put something in the hat or the violin case as most people do, because they're grateful for this glorious music down in the bowels of the earth." But then, given the good medievalist that she is, she immediately thought of a contemporary Orpheus and Eurydice story. Indeed, almost all her novels are about mythic narratives replaying themselves in the present, she admits. "It's not by design, It just happens."

From that moment, she also wanted to portray the complexity of life not just in the Daintree country where she taught for several years, but in the South, where she is still enthralled by the populace's almost mythic obsession with the Civil War. "When I was moving here, friends in the North said to me 'you'll find that in the South it's as though the Civil War ended 10 years ago', and I took that as some sort of exaggeration, but it isn't. It is also more complicated than just black and white. Of course, it's not called the Civil War here either, it's called the War Between the States and it's sometimes called the War of Northern Aggression. It was fought on this soil, it was southern crops that were burned. And in terms of emotion, death and maiming, the costs of this war are being disproportionately borne by African American and poor whites."

Now, another war rings loud in the South: the ongoing conflict in Iraq. "It's part of life here. Partly because a disproportionate amount of the regular Army is from the black and poor people of America. Troops are being deployed for the second or third time to Iraq. Their deployment has just been extended from a year to 15 months; this affects a lot of South Carolina families. The South Carolina National Guard - which includes students and colleagues of mine, and families of students and colleagues - is about to be deployed to Afghanistan."

In researching the novel, she talked extensively not only to war veterans, but to Southerners who worked in military intelligence to help her convey the complexity of the war for Southerners, and the kind of shame engendered by the revelations of Abu Ghraib and rendition or torture by proxy. "I'm a member of Amnesty International so rendition has always been an issue that I'm intensely aware of and disturbed by." She was horrified, too, by the revelations of prisoner abuse by American soldiers, and that, too, filtered into the novel.

"I was just so astounded and appalled by Abu Ghraib, and was absolutely convinced that [former US Defence Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld would be gone in a week, that Americans would never forgive someone who tarnished the international view of Americans. And I'm glad to say that decent strain of American values is ascendant again."

All her novels have coalesced around a central question. But in the case of Orpheus Lost, she says, "there were multiple questions. What would be the life trajectory at this point in history for someone with a Muslim parent who'd turned to terrorism? How would you negotiate that? And there's also the huge Amnesty question, how do you balance human rights with legitimate means of maintaining national security? To me there's a line you just don't cross. Although we feel as an individual we can do precious little on a world scale, I feel every human being is accountable for decisions made in our name by a government. To me that is a passionately personal question, not just a big social one."

Having grown up in such a devout Pentecostal family, Turner Hospital understands another key point about the South: the seeping power of Christianity. "There is no politician, black or white, who doesn't do the rounds of the African American churches, courting that vote. And one of the things interesting about the African American community is that it is politically liberal, but socially very conservative."

She attributes her fascination with Southern colloquialisms to the circumstances of her childhood, when coming from a strict home she had to listen to and watch others so she knew how to fit in. Even now, she admits she is a dedicated scavenger of other people's conversations. "Sometimes I'm so delighted by a phrase I cut in on people's conversations spontaneously and embarrass myself." But when it comes to the musicality of her prose, and indeed the very structure of her novels, she cites Virginia Woolf as the most potent influence. "I'm a very slow writer because the music of it matters as much as the content. And I'm training my students to be conscious of it, too. Joseph Conrad always said language should aspire to the condition of music, and that's my credo."

But the philosophy that really drives her novels, she adds, is "I despair, therefore I insist on hope. You know, I do believe in redemptive moments. I no longer have a safe structure in any traditional sense, but I do believe that redemptive moments exist and that deeply flawed human beings are capable of great and redemptive moments toward other human beings. And that's what I celebrate. For me, that's what the books are about.

* Orpheus Lost (Fourth Estate, $39.99)