Tag Archives: Michelle de Kretser

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.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night

Last year I didn’t attend the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner because it cost too much. Tonight’s presentation was a lot cheaper, being not a dinner but a cocktail event. But for the first time in many years I had read almost none of the short-listed books, so decided it didn’t make sense to attend.

However, I’m loath to let the occasion go completely unremarked in this blog, so here I am, reporting from afar.

For a moment it looked as if the event itself was superfluous. This tweet appeared almost two hours before the doors of the Library opened:

Was it a hoax, or a leak? The link was dead. I stayed tuned to Twitter. Once Ross Grayson Bell had delivered the address and a couple of tweeters had found each other, the announcements came thick and fast.

Hakan Harman announced the joint winners of the Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW Award as The Secret River, Andrew Bovell’s play based on Kate Grenville’s book, and Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser. I’ve wanted to see/read both.

Of the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting shortlist I’d only seen Medea, Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany, but didn’t expect it to win, though glad it was shortlisted. Van Badham’s Muff won. I haven’t seen it, but if the play is as good as her MCing of the March in May in Belmore Park yesterday it definitely deserves the prize.

I’d seen four of the six shows on the Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting list. My money was on Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket, though it would have been nice to see A Moody Christmas score a victory for comic writing. Devil’s Dust by Kris Mrksa won, completely appropriate for a prize named after old Com Betty Roland.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature list included some familiar names. It was won by The Girl Who Brought Mischief by Katrina Nannestad, which I haven’t read.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature went to Zac and Mia by Amanda Betts.

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry went to Novelties by Fiona Hile, who will be reading at Sydney University on Wednesday.

None of the subjects addressed in the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction list grabbed me by the throat: a 50 year old mystery death, a larrikin cricketer, an actor’s memoir, a ‘horrible history’ for grown-ups, a bit of war history, and – the one I would have chosen on the basis of the subject alone – the excavation of a dark family past. So I was glad when Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir by Kristina Olsson shared the award with Rendezvous with Destiny (the one about war and diplomacy) by Michael Fullilove.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Though I’d read none of the listed books, I had extra-literary reasons to cheer for one of them. It didn’t win. The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane took home the bacon. I look forward to reading it, as well as the other.

The pre-emptive tweet had taken much of the suspense out of the next couple of awards (whatever wins the novel prize is generally reported as having scooped the pool, even if it’s not book of the year).

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, which has been beckoning from my bedroom bookshelf for months, won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, but not the People’s Choice, which went to The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay. It did win Book of the Year, so Michelle de Kretser took home three prizes. It couldn’t happen to a nicer person.

The special award went to Rodney Hall. I love this award, because every year someone who has worked long and hard and generously in literature is honoured. This one continues that tradition. According to the tweeters he gave a rousing and topical speech in defence of funding for the arts.

And in less than two hours it was all over till next year.

Books I read in India (and on the plane there and back) [January 2008]

Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated Jeremy Leggatt, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Fourth Estate 1997)
Richard E Grant, The Wah-Wah Diaries (Picador 2006)
Ruskin Bond, Roads to Mussoorie (Rupa & Co 2005)
Henning Mankel, Kennedy’s Brain (Harvill Secker 2007)
Philip Kerr, The One from the Other (Quercus 2006)
Michelle De Kretser, The Hamilton Case (Knopf 2003)
P Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought (Penguin India 1996)
Tohby Riddle, Pink Freud (Penguin Australia 2007)

Deciding what books to take travelling is probably always problematic. They need to weigh little enough, be discardable or relevant enough, and preferably be likely to be read by more than one traveller. My reading on this trip managed a fairly decent combination of those criteria.


The Jean-Dominique Bauby memoir rates high on the light-of-weight criterion. Given the manner of its composition, it’s just as well. Bauby was suffering Locked-in Syndrome in the aftermath of a stroke: his mind was unimpaired, but his paralysis was so extensive that he could communicate only by blinking his left eye. Just reading about it was enough to restimulate my mild episode of Bell’s Palsy from some decades ago. He dictated this elegant, even lyrical book one letter at a time by blinking that eye. I’ll never look at the immobile and unresponsive people in the nursing home the same again: they differ from Bauby in being demented, but the powerful lesson of the book is surely that inability to communicate is not at all the same thing as lack of ability to perceive and respond.

I read the whole thing before we reached Singapore. As it had been lent to me, it stayed with me for the whole remainder of the trip, and came home safely. I recoil from the idea of the film (which is coming to Sydney soon). This is a quintessentially verbal creation, and I can’t see that a film could be anything other than a travesty.


I expected the Richard E Grant book to be discardable, but it’s such a good read that it too stayed with me for the whole trip and is now on loan to an emerging filmmaker. The thing about REG (as he is called in the captions to the location photographs) is that as a first-time, perhaps even one-time writer-director who is also a well-established character actor, he is at the same time an insider and an outsider in the movie business. Wah-Wah is an intensely personal, autobiographical film, and the diary of its making is also intensely personal, an account of revisiting a difficult but rich childhood. It’s also the story of a multinational, multimillion dollar enterprise in which it sometimes seemed that anything that could go wrong would go wrong. The diary form serves the subject well, and in his producer REG finds a perfect villain. It’s hard to believe she was ever as incompetent, as obnoxious, as French-arrogant as she is portrayed, but the joy she gives as a character in the book is directly proportional to the pain she apparently gave in the real/reel world. I remember enjoying the film. I’d now like to see it again. And I’d love to see a version that includes some of the (correctly) excised scenes.


By now we were in Delhi, and when in the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Jarpath Radial near Connaught Place I saw books by Ruskin Bond, a sometime contributor to a magazine I once edited, of course I bought one – an interesting experience in itself, as the process was broken down into its parts: agreement to the purchase and receipt of a docket at the counter; payment and having the docket stamped at a cashier two floors down; receipt of the book and surrender of the docket just inside the exit door.

The book is a collection of rambling essays about the joys of living in Mussoorie, a hill station in Uttar Pradesh. It turned out I’d read a number of the pieces before when RB submitted them as typescripts to the magazine (corrected with white-out and ink – I can verify his assertion in the book that he doesn’t use a computer). We published at least one of them. But there was a special pleasure in reading them so close to the place where they were written, and where Ruskin still lives, as far as I know. Among many delights, one that stands out is the little excursion into the history of potato in India – we had an Irish soldier to thank for the plentiful potato that seemed to feature in every meal.


The Henning Mankell book made the cut because both Penny and I have enjoyed his detective stories, and I’m respectful of his two books for young people (one of which deals, like this book, with AIDS). Written, according to an endnote, in fury at the role of the West in relation to AIDS in Africa, it appears to have been revised in haste, to have done without beta readers altogether, and been copy-edited on a tight budget. The result is that, though the same endnote asks that the book be taken seriously as shedding light on terrible things, it actually comes across as a clumsy fantasy of wickedness, a rickety, even incoherent, echo of Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, a trivialising of the issues about which Mankell undoubtedly cares deeply. The translation may be partly to blame, but I don’t think so.

We didn’t have the heart to inflict this on any of our fellow travellers, so it found a bin in the pink city of Jaipur.


We brought The One from the Other for pretty much the same reasons as the Henning Mankell, except I haven’t read any of Philip Kerr’s children’s books. It ranked low on the relevance scale, though as I took my malaria tablets one morning, I enjoyed the moment’s connection to the book’s maguffin, a cure for malaria which was to be found at monstrous cost.

It turns out to be a ripping good yarn, in an amusing tough-guy voice; its incidents and conspiracy theories are plausible; and its endnote provides quite a bit of information on the sources on post-war Germany and Austria where it is set. Of course, Kerr has the advantage over Mankell of a setting nearly 60 years in the past, which is well documented and much storied, and in which he has already set a number of novels. Still … we didn’t have any qualms about passing this one on.


Michelle De Kretser writes a pretty damn good sentence, and a pretty damn good yarn. Our copy of The Hamilton Case is a hardcover, so not designed for ease of packing, and neither Penny nor I had read anything by this author. We must have thought its setting made it relevant. And indeed, Ceylonese complexities did resonate with our experiences in the land of the former British Raj. The resonances weren’t always comfortable. I noted down a couple of neat observations:

There is an old instinct, at work in bordellos and the relations of East and West, to convert the unbearable into the picturesque. It enables a sordid existence to be endured, on one side, and witnessed, on the other, with something like equanimity


The coloniser returns as a tourist, you see. And he is mad for difference. That is the luxury commodity we now supply, as we once kept him in cinnamon and sapphires.


On the train from Delhi to Agra we got chatting with an Indian couple from Pune who were also sightseeing. In a wide-ranging conversation, I asked if they would recommend any books about India by Indians. They mentioned Everybody Loves a Good Drought. The first time I got to a bookshop was in Pushkar in the last couple of days of our trip, and sure enough, there it was, along with just about every other book by an Indian or about india that I have ever read. I read it on the plane home, and haven’t quite finished it. The subtitle says it all: ‘Stories from India’s Poorest Districts’.

It’s wonderful, powerful journalism: P Sainath spent some years travelling around talking to the poorest of the poor and writing articles for The Times of India. This is a collection of the articles linked by short generalising essays. It gives faces and voices to the poor, and it’s unremitting. Nothing picturesque or ‘different’ here.


Tohby’s collection of cartoons from the weekend magazines of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age was on the hall table on our return, a very welcome gift. I was still making frequent visits to the toilet, and this book made the experience much less unpleasant. I include it here, because it was part of the India experience to come home to something so very Sydney: warm, witty, elliptic, muted, spiritual and sometimes laugh-out-loud. I particularly liked the image of a search and rescue worker who, when asked where he’s going, says, ‘I’m going to India to find myself.’