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Michelle de Kretser, Questions of travel (Review)

August 1, 2013
Hardback cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Hardback cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

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
517pp
ISBN: 9781743317334

* Aussies commonly abbreviate words with “o” or “ie” endings. “Renos” therefore refers to “renovations”.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. Regula Bubb permalink
    August 1, 2013 3:55 pm

    Fascinating, always, the choice of your books! This one is an especially touching review – with questions that lay within our “traveling society”, that are much deeper to explore, that are wonderful to be dissected in that way!
    Thank you, for bringing literature closer, in your personal AND professional way!
    Warmest, Regula

    • August 1, 2013 9:11 pm

      Oh thanks Regula … this would be up your alley!

      I’ve been thinking of you lately. I gather you are on holiday at present? Do enjoy your break.

  2. August 1, 2013 6:55 pm

    makes me so curious about the book – space, travel, it’s all in. thanks for the nice review!

    • August 1, 2013 9:05 pm

      Thanks Cindy … do check it out. It’s not a short book but every page is a pleasure to read.

  3. Clare permalink
    August 1, 2013 7:22 pm

    Terrific review. I can’t resist pointing out, though, that this is an Allen & Unwin title, rather than a Text Publishing one!

    • August 1, 2013 9:04 pm

      Oh, you’re right, Clare … I knew that. I’ll fix it right away. How embarrassing! Thanks for noticing.

  4. August 1, 2013 7:52 pm

    Thank you for the mention, Sue. I loved this book: I loved its significant themes, I loved its sensitive characterisation, and I loved the sly humour too. Its such a rich book, the more I read reviews, each one tackling a different slant, the more I think that this is a book that will withstand repeated readings.
    I am so glad it won the Miles Franklin!

    • August 1, 2013 9:01 pm

      Totally agree Lisa … in my paperback copy is a wonderful statement by Kerryn Goldsworthy, about The lost dog which I know you didn’t like much, in which she says of de Kretser’s writing that “its subject matters is so substantial that reader notices only in passing how funny it is”. As you say there’s so many strands here … that we can all look at it from different angles and add to the conversation.

      • August 1, 2013 10:52 pm

        Oh, let’s not mention TLD, that was an aberration. Questions of Travel is a return to form.
        I can’t wait to see what she writes next, now she’s won the MF I hope that gives her the opportunity to write full time.

        • August 1, 2013 11:07 pm

          Yes, she’s certainly a great writer. I liked TLD … not as much as The Hamilton Case … but I did like it. Sorry! It’s hard to imagine where she’ll go but I’m sure she’ll think of something – she has so much to offer in reflecting us back to ourselves I think.

  5. Bryce permalink
    August 1, 2013 9:17 pm

    Excellent review, Sue and, as Lisa observed, a different slant on a well-loved book. There are many pleasures in this novel, not least the well-crafted prose. But what stays with me are the insights into the “big issues” that you highlight.

    • August 1, 2013 10:30 pm

      Thanks Bryce … there are so many slants aren’t there. She’s great on the tiny details — and on the big questions. Just delicious.

  6. August 1, 2013 11:47 pm

    Wow, I hadn’t heard all that much about this book Sue, I did know that it had won the MF of course, but didn’t know much more than the title. Somehow I’d missed Lisa’s review. You certainly make a persuasive case for reading it, it sounds amazing, observational with satire and sly humour is right up my alley. I do find it difficult to just slip a 500 page book in my busy dance card though, I’m too slow a reader and they take me so long.

    • August 2, 2013 12:39 am

      Given your love of travel, Louise, it’s a must for you! It is long, and while it’s very readable it’s not one to read fast because pretty well every page makes you want to stop and think. It’s very clever but is not forced.

  7. August 2, 2013 12:30 am

    was shocked this missed the booker list ,I won a copy and after hear her talk about the book a couple of times I want to read it ,think I love the different threads in the story and how they connect ,all the best stu

    • August 2, 2013 12:35 am

      I agree Stu … it’s a worthy book and a great read too. I can see aspects that people could criticise but they are not things that spoil it for me. I won’t forget it for a long time.

  8. August 3, 2013 4:00 am

    You had me at your first paragraph. I just finished reading a nonfiction book about place and placelessness and it talks about authenticity, identity and tourism among other things. This sounds like a marvelous book that I will definitely have to get my hands on. Thanks for the wonderful review too!

    • August 3, 2013 8:13 am

      And I’m off to a conference this weekend about Place … Well, about writing about landscape but they’re related aren’t they. I’m very excited about this as it has some great writers speaking including Murray Bail.

      Anyhow … You’d love this book I think.

      • August 5, 2013 5:14 am

        I think I would. Please do report back about the conference. I am having pangs of envy at the moment.

        • August 5, 2013 8:22 am

          Thanks Stefanie … I will, it was provocative, inspiring, interesting. I might start with today’s Monday Musings if I can get some coherent thoughts together.

  9. Bryce permalink
    August 3, 2013 1:57 pm

    I know many people don’t buy the Australian on principle (I trash my principles for the book pages of the Weekend Oz), but there is a delightful and informative interview with Michelle de Kretser in today’s Oz Magazine. She never reads reviews of her books, although she’s saving up AS Byatt’s glowing review of QOT for a bad day, so that she can read it and feel better.

    • August 3, 2013 3:23 pm

      Oh thanks Bryce … I’ll try to track it down. I’m at the NLA all weekend … Surely I can find time if it’s not online!

  10. Brian Joseph permalink
    August 3, 2013 11:22 pm

    Superb commentary on this book.

    I love it when an author explores multiple permutations upon a them and ties it into the big picture.

    On a side note, a strong argument for “History is only a byproduct of geography” is made by Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs and Steel.

    • August 4, 2013 12:07 am

      I do too Brian … and I have Guns, germs and steel. Just Haven’t read it yet. Really must try to fit it in.

  11. August 4, 2013 11:12 am

    This sounds amazing. But I’d hate to read it and feel like my entire current life has been invalidated! 😉

  12. August 4, 2013 11:48 pm

    This sounds like a beautiful, mesmerising read. I feel so lost with regard to Place at times I envy your going to a conference about it. Must read this book. I’ve just discovered ‘The Hamilton Case’ on a bookshelf in my house. A good book to take away, I’d imagine?

    • August 5, 2013 8:16 am

      Oh yes, Catherine, The Hamilton case was the first of hers I’d read, and I enjoyed it a lot. Since you have it, I’d say go for it! Daughter Hannah had already read her first novel, The rose grower, and loved it. I’ve still to read it, but I’ve read all her others.

  13. August 5, 2013 3:04 am

    I almost read this one but decided to give it a pass. Sounds like I made a mistake.

    • August 5, 2013 8:17 am

      Well, I’d say you did Guy! It’s an intelligent, engrossing read. It makes you laugh, cry and wince. I perhaps should have said that in my review.

  14. June 11, 2014 10:17 am

    What a beautiful review, Sue. We definitely read the same book, though I enjoyed it a lot less than you.

    • June 11, 2014 10:27 am

      Thanks Jonathan … well I’m glad you see the same book in my review. As you can tell, it’s one of those book that resonated – and that keeps resonating for me.

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