Published by Allen & Unwin
Review by Maggie Rainey-Smith
This is a big book. I think it is an important book. I am a Michelle de Kretser fan ever since reading ‘The Hamilton Case’. But, “Questions of Travel” is an entirely different book... or is it? One of the key characters Ravi, is Sri Lankan and there is murder, most brutal. And similar to ‘The Hamilton Case’, politics and the personal are muddied, and you’re never entirely certain. De Kretser is an author of our times. She is a genius I think. My head was spinning at the beginning because of the myriad of ideas, the wicked humour, the scope of the novel and the author’s extraordinary insight into the human condition.
Questions of travel is essentially two stories but they reflect off one another at first seemingly quite disparate and then somehow they are cleverly complimentary, juxtaposed just oddly enough to enlighten each other. Laura, who is Australian, travels because she can and Ravi who is Sri Lankan travels as a migrant, because he must escape from tragedy. De Kretser sets up this contrast between the travellers. It begins with Laura’s story in the 1960’s. Laura’s Aunt Hester who is the inspiration for Laura’s travel bug, returns from her travels with embroidered stories for her niece that make her reasons for travelling appear glamorous, leaving out the broken heart, the failed love affair. “Because all this had to be excluded from the stories laid before Laura, they suggested journeys undertaken in order to seek out delightful new places. Whereas really, thought Hester, her travels had been a kind of flight.”
This short paragraph really works as a mini expose of the plot of this book, if there is a plot. But this book is far bigger than a plot. It is a chronicle of our times; it is a broad brush-stroke and an intimate drawing. It is wickedly funny and achingly sad. It reminded me at times of what Emily Perkins did in ‘The Forrests’ the benign intimacy and minutiae of the everyday, the specific without necessary specificity to the plot-line. But De Kretser’s canvas is much bigger than ‘The Forrests’. You have to be careful as an author when you do the big stuff, but she’s more than up to it. On the cover, A. S Byatt is quoted as saying ‘Michelle de Kretser knows how to construct a gripping story. She writes quickly and lightly of wonderful and terrible things.’ I kept returning to this quote and yet quickly and lightly, seem an under-statement.
Ravi’s story is the more gripping from the start and at times I wondered what Laura was doing alongside him. Indeed, as a reader, you dip in and out of their stories and Laura at first seems like a cipher for Ravi’s story. I was always rushing to return to Ravi, and indeed, Laura’s story for the first half is often just brief glimpses. The beginning of Ravi’s story is very brutal and yet De Kretser has this ability to dissect the brutal and the benign with scrupulous objectivity, keeping the reader at arm’s length, knowing they will be horrified, but refusing to indulge them. Perhaps this is what A. S. Byatt means by ‘quickly and lightly’.
And too, so deft, so sharp and so keen is the author’s eye for the human condition, the times in which we live and have lived, that as a reader I sometimes felt forgotten, left-out, and I wanted more compassion both for me and for the characters. And then, almost half way through this chronicle of the lives of Ravi and Laura, I found the characters, I connected with them, and my heart was rewarded.
Laura becomes a writer for a travel publication similar to ‘The Lonely Planet’. The insights into Australian culture, the corporate world, office politics and the whole travel writing thing, are wickedly funny. There seems to be no aspect of the human condition that De Kretser has not considered. My copy of the book is festooned with post-it notes of outstanding quotable prose, but this would mean choosing which pieces to quote! Often I had to re-read a densely packed sentence, more than once. The first time as a reader to understand it, and the second time as a writer to marvel at the construction. She’s so original and who else could describe a hibiscus thus ‘Long strands of a creeper, too, hung over the palings. Against its green vigour, the hibiscus looked arthritic.” Or this, “The leaves of the orange trees were as glossy and distinct as if cut from green tin.” And how about this “Google was ravenous: Laura fed it hour after hour. Her laptop kept up the noisy breathing of a drugged child.”
And this, when Laura is describing a male colleague she’s been involved with ‘Perhaps she was an item on a checklist: the wild oats of Europe, the career back home, marriage, mortgage, fatherhood, adultery, the mandatory stopping places on the Ordinary Aussie Grand Tour, with the renos, divorce and a coronary to follow.”
And then when Ravi arrives in Australia “Ocean delirium was pervasive. Parched inland suburbs boasted Beach roads, Bay streets, Seaview crescents. Ravi remembered his first Australian day, the boats dying of thirst in the streets.” Ravi’s response to Australia and Australians is brilliantly rendered, perhaps reflecting the author’s intimate knowledge of both cultures. De Kretser too, explores the rise of the internet in our lives, email and Google. Ravi finds solace in the internet and takes his laptop out onto a balcony looking over Sydney and listens to a nightingale signing (presumably on you-tube). His leisure becomes the internet. “Ravi visited chat rooms, red the diaries of strangers, grazed on images. He googled the names of old friends, and found a caterer in Orange County, an accountant in Penang.”
De Kretser has fun with the fictional version of ‘Lonely Planet’, it’s upwardly mobile and internationally mobile staff, but underlying this novel is a far more serious theme of travel and the global world we inhabit, that includes the Tampa, the politics of asylum seekers in Australia, the luxury and loneliness of the modern traveller and the banality of their discoveries and their increasing desires for supposed ‘authenticity’ in their travels and what this means. She is merciless in her uncovering, even as her scalpel slices, she seems to laugh both with us, and at us. There’s a risk with a novel like this. Does the reader want to be exposed to these big themes, the personal and the political all rolled up into two stories, side by side, tracking our own lives really, the way we live, what makes us human.
I recall someone picking ‘The Forrests’ (which I really enjoyed), as a shoo-in for the Booker and so I’m wary of such predictions, but I’ve taken a bet with my local bookshop, that definitely this will be on the short-list – or I will, I promise, eat my hat.