Every now and then a book comes along that is so sweeping in its conception, that it almost defies review. Such a book is this year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, Questions of travel by Michelle de Kretser. Consequently, I’m going to focus on one aspect that particularly spoke to me – and that is her exploration of place and its meaning/s in contemporary society.
“Soon everyone will be a tourist”
As the title suggests, the novel is about travel – but travel in its widest sense. In fact, without being too corny, it is, really, about the journey of life. As our heroine Laura, thinking about her married lover Paul, ponders:
Perhaps she was an item on the 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 renos*, divorce and a coronary to follow.
That made me splutter in my coffee …
First, though, a brief overview of the plot. The story is told chronologically, alternating between the Australian Laura and Sri Lankan Ravi. Both were born in the 1960s, and the novel chronicles their lives until 2004 when they’d be around 40. Laura, under-appreciated by her family (cruelly described by her father as “the runt of the bunch”) and aimless, travels the world before returning to Sydney in her mid-30s, still rather directionless, but now an experienced freelance travel-writer. Ravi grows up in Sri Lanka, marries and has a son, but a shocking event results in his coming to Australia in 2000 as an asylum-seeker, the same year that Laura returns. You might think at this point that you know where the novel is heading, but you’ll be getting no spoilers from me!
And so we have two significant types of traveller – the tourist (with some business travel thrown in) and the refugee/emigrant. De Kretser explores these comprehensively, and with, I must say, thrilling insight. Thrilling is an unusual word in this context, I suppose, but I can’t think of a better one to describe my reaction to the way de Kretser, point-by-point, unpicks the world of travel, skewering all sorts of assumptions, expectations and pretensions as she goes. I almost got to the point of cancelling my next overseas trip! After all, as Laura discovers, “to be a tourist was always too arrive too late”. How many times have you been told that x place was better in the 80s, only to remember that in the 80s you were told it was better in the 60s!
“Geography is destiny”
So Ravi is told by his teacher Brother Ignatius. This, for all the serious and satirical exploration of travel and tourism, is what the book means most to me. Brother Ignatius tells his students that “History is only a byproduct of geography”. While we could all have fun exploring a chicken-and-the-egg argument, I’d find it hard to deny its fundamental truth.
Laura spends most of the book travelling, or thinking and writing about travel. She’s the quintessential modern person, believing:
What was the modern age if not movement, travel, change?
Living in England she sees the long-standing connections people have to their place, while
Her own people struck Laura, by comparison, as a vigorous, shallow-rooted plant still adapting itself to alien soil.
She returns to Australia, following the death of the gay man she’d loved, hoping for meaning, connection. Geography, place, home had asserted itself … as it usually does. But life doesn’t prove to be much easier. Struggling to find her place, she finds once again that “noone was asking her to stay”.
Meanwhile, Ravi struggles to adjust to his circumstances. Grieving for what he’s lost, he (with his “eyes that had peered into hell”) goes through the motions of living and working. People such as his landlady and her family, and his work colleagues, are kind – enough – but de Kretser shows how skin-deep, how superficial, our practice of diversity and, worse, our humanity is. We do not easily accept people from “other” places. “Otherness”, de Kretser proves, “is readily opaque”. Australians, for example, ask Ravi which detention centre he’d been in because, of course, as an asylum-seeker that’s where he’d been! And, if he hadn’t, was he a “real” refugee. (One of the book’s many other themes, in fact, is “authenticity”.) Ravi, it has to be said, doesn’t help himself. He doesn’t share his history (should he have to?) and, fearing obligations, he resists any help that isn’t essential.
“Place had come undone”
While Laura and Ravi struggle with where they are, they also confront the fact that by the late twentieth century place isn’t only physical. Ravi had discovered, back in Sri Lanka, the world of “disembodied travel”, though his wife Malini had proclaimed “Bodies are always local”. This imagery, seemingly light at the time, carries a heavy weight. Later, finding settling into his new geographical location difficult, Ravi starts to find escape and even solace in virtual places, including visiting people’s homes via real estate sites. De Kretser doesn’t miss any opportunity to explore the ways we “travel” and it never feels forced. It all fits, emulating the way travel fits into our lives.
For Laura, the virtual intrudes mostly through work where she is a commissioning editor for Ramsays, a travel guide company. As the 21st century takes hold, the e-zone division of her company starts to increase in importance. Some of the novel’s best satire is found in the portrayal of corporate culture at Ramsays. It’s laugh-out-loud, sometimes excruciatingly so.
“Time was a magician, it always had something improbable up its sleeve …”
While the novel’s subject matter is travel, in all its guises and in what it says about how we relate to place and each other, the overriding theme is that literal and existential question, What Am I Doing Here? It tackles the big issues that confront us all every day – Time, Truth, Memory, Death and, of course, the most fraught of all, Other People.
Towards the end of the novel, Laura realises that:
… the moment that mattered on each journey resisted explanation … because it addressed only the individual heart.
We could say the same about a great book … and so I apologise for my paltry attempt here to explain de Kretser’s witty, warm and powerful novel. If you have any interest in contemporary literature and its take on modern living, this is the book for you.
For an equally positive perspective, check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) excellent review.
Michelle de Kretser
Questions of travel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012
* Aussies commonly abbreviate words with “o” or “ie” endings. “Renos” therefore refers to “renovations”.