Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel

Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin 2012)

Questions of Travel Cover

A number of my friends gave up on this book, one as early as page 80.

At page 80, by contrast, I was on the edge of my seat. Things had moved slowly, true, as the novel traced the lives of its two protagonists in roughly alternating chapters bearing their names and the decade: ‘Laura, 1960s’, ‘Laura, 1970s’, ‘Ravi, 1970s’ and so on. By page 80 we’ve reached the 1990s. Laura Fraser, an Australian in her 30s, is travelling in Europe and her small inheritance is running out, so something has to give. And devastation surely looms for Ravi Mendis, a young Sinhalese man whose wife is a Tamil activist. It’s not exactly a thriller, and my interest hasn’t really been in plot developments. Nor have the characters grabbed my emotions. What is really keeping me in there is the unfailingly elegant writing, and the way subject of travel has been held up to the light like a multifaceted stone, reflecting endless variations.

The musical play on the theme of travel continues to be the book’s holding power: people travel through time, and markers of the passing decades – in clothes, public preoccupations, communication technology – are carefully noted; they travel in different modes – as tourists, refugees, travel-guide researchers; they walk, ride bikes, fly, catch buses; they travel with joy and ennui and hope of starting over; their motives for travelling are probed – a recurring question for Laura is, ‘What are you doing here?’, a question that resonates ever more broadly as the novel progresses.

I did come close to giving up a little past halfway: where nine full pages are given over to enumerating a days’s activities of someone working in a publishing company, including 52 emails. That, and an accumulation of observations of physical and social Sydney as seen through foreign eyes with no discernible progress of the stories just about did me in. But, you know, many narratives lose momentum just after the midpoint: in a rom com’s soppy montage after the characters have finally had sex, the extended recap in a police procedural, the conversation where the action hero spells out his tragic back story. So I was prepared to weather the doldrums, keep hoping for a breeze.

The breeze came. It’s a very impressive book that I can imagine being read a hundred years from now (if people still read) as a compelling portrait of an age when people travelled as never before, out of desperate need, from heedless self-indulgence, or as a nameless quest, a pilgrimage without a shrine. Especially in the first quarter, there are turns of phrase and observations that made me catch my breath. These were offset by some passages where minor characters are pilloried in what I suppose counts as satire, but comes across as snobbery. And even when terrible things happened to the main characters, the sense that they happen to fill a general schema gets in the way of a direct emotional response. Among all the images of travel, for example, images of flowers, especially flowers in a vase, are deployed brilliantly: and the brilliance has an unexpected effect of creating emotional distance at moments that should pack a huge wallop.

I’m deeply impressed by this book. I completely get why critics and judging panels have lauded it. But it’s already fading from my mind.

awwbadge_2014 Questions of Travel is the sixth and biggest book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

8 responses to “Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel

  1. Libby Gleeson

    Hi Jonathan, Lovely to read this – I was fearing that you’d given up reviewing or that I’d dropped off your list but not so. I gave up on this one but you’re making me rethink my decision. When you branch out to women other than Australian, have a look at Elizabeth Gilbert’s A Signature of all Things. It’s far and away the best I’ve read this year. The memory of my response to it is strong although much of it is fading. Are we getting old? (don’t answer – strictly rhetorical question!) Hope all’s well with you, Libby

    • Hi Libby. A Signature of All Things is now on my scarily long and diverse list of books to be read. The movie We Need to Talk About Kevin left me not exactly wanting to search her out, not that it was bad – on the contrary!

      • Oops! Lionel Shriver wrote We Need to Talk about Kevin. But word of mouth on Eat Drink Pray Love made me chary of Elizabeth Gilbert, so your recommendation has had something to push against!

  2. Thanks Jonathan. It sounds harder work than I expected, but you’ve convinced me to give it a try. And thanks, Libby, for the Elizabeth Gilbert suggestion too.

  3. Jonathan,

    I loved this book! From whoa to go! So much a book for our times – and the asylum-seekers out of Sri Lanka – the Anglo life and travels and ease of passage wherever! A truly Australian novel! I am writing this from a thunderstorm-soaked afternoon in Seoul – after a morning visit to the DMZ/Panmunjeon area! Met a young Korean fellow at lunch – did secondary schooling in the UK then an Engineering degree at University College London – about to tackle law back there – holds British citizenship – mother back and forth/father permanently here. And an orthopaedic surgeon (specialising in the spine) from Bloomington, Illinois – here for a conference – with his family (children on summer break) – ancestry out of Africa (way, way back) but via his mother a line running French/Guadeloupe! We traded ancestral tales – much to compare/find similarities with. This (in my opinion) underlies much of Michelle de KRETSER’s huge novel.

    • Hi Jim. I agree with everything you say about the book. It’s just that in my reading it stayed at a cool distance from its characters, which left me at a cool distance from it.

  4. Yes, as you know, I loved this book (like Jim). I read it a year ago and it hasn’t faded because I loved the analysis of travel (in all its phases!). I enjoyed those emails – they were so funny (to me). I don’t recollect finding any of it slow because there was always something to interest me – writing, character, ideas and/or plot. It made me stop and think many times. I’m surprised to hear that so many people give up. I hadn’t heard that reaction. BTW I love your description “the way subject of travel has been held up to the light like a multifaceted stone, reflecting endless variations”.

  5. Hi Sue. Humour must be just about the most subjective thing: it’s possible to see that something can be funny and just not be amused. Maybe the list of emails felt too tediously familiar to me from my days in a bureaucracy and in publishing. Likewise the strolling around Sydney, though that had its splendid moments, such as when Ravi gets off the train at Circular Quay and sees that commuters get the actual view for free that tourists have to buy a postcard representation of. It’s hard not to love that.