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