Michelle de Kretser’s Miles Franklin shortlisted novel, The life to come, makes for great reading but difficult blogging because, like her Miles Franklin Award winner, Questions of travel (my review), it is big, and covers a lot of ground. Where to start is the problem. However, I’ll give it my best shot, starting with its form.
The novel comprises five distinct, almost standalone, parts, except that one character, the Australian novelist Pippa, appears in each one, providing a continuing narrative thread for the whole. She is introduced as a rather naive student in the Part 1 (“The Fictive Self”). We then move through Part 2 (“The Ashfield Tamil”) about Ash and Cassie, Part 3 (“The museum of romantic life”) about Céleste in Paris, and Part 4 (“Pippa Passes”) about Pippa and her in-laws, to end with Part 5 (“Olly Faithful”) about Christabel and Bunty. These characters are Australian, French, British and Sri Lankan.
But something intrigued me. The title of Part 4, “Pippa Passes”, rang a bell, of Robert Browning’s poem “Pippa Passes”. I don’t recollect much about the poem, but its form, interestingly, is similar to de Kretser’s novel. “Pippa Passes” is also the origin of the famous lines “God’s in his heaven/All’s right in the world”. However, while Pippa in the poem acts as a positive force, our Pippa does not. She thinks she’s a “good person”. As Céleste says, “Pippa would always need to demonstrate her solidarity with the oppressed – Indigenous people or battery hens, it scarcely mattered.” In fact, though, she regularly tramples on others, not necessarily intentionally, causing them pain. Presumably de Kretser intended this ironic allusion to Browning’s Pippa. I also wonder whether Christabel alludes to Coleridge’s poem Christabel, which explores the relationship between two women. Hmmm … I may be drawing long bows here as I don’t think Bunty is anything like Coleridge’s Geraldine. Still …
Anyhow, moving right along, I’m going to divide my remaining comments into two main strands – the personal and the, for want of a better word, sociocultural.
The novel’s title, The life to come, comes from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, as quoted in the epigraph. It provides a clue to the novel’s main theme. It’s the theme that most touches our hearts, because it’s about the hope for or belief in “the life to come”. It’s about the search for meaning, for transformation, for a full life.
Cassie, for example, realises that her relationship with Ash is about trying to work out “How was she to live?”. She thinks, self-centredly, that “the two Sri Lankans”, Ash and the Spice Market man, “had entered her life to change its course”. Paris-based Céleste, who is fifty-something, single, and having an affair with thirty-something Sabine, is confronting ageing. “Is this all there is?” she wonders, as she sees her future shrinking “to a single point of solitary, penny-pinching old-age.” Pippa, our ongoing character, imagines a glorious future for herself as a writer: “her future was as vast as the light beating its wings in clifftop parks.” Céleste, though, sees something quite different in Pippa; she sees “Excess so far in excess of achievement.” Finally, single, Sri Lankan immigrant Christabel, looks, from the beginning, for that moment of transformation when her real life will begin. At 34, “she had believed, briefly, that her life could be joyful.” She keeps on hoping, however, and even when she accepts, “humbly, that it might never exist for her (“I am ordinary”) … she needed to know it was there“.
De Kretser provides her characters with life’s reality check, that gap between what you imagine and what you achieve. Best to learn it sooner rather than later!
While that personal strand touches our hearts, the other one provides more of the laughs, albeit rueful ones, because many of them are turned on us. The life to come, in other words, contains a healthy dose of satire, skewering our assumptions and pretentious. When I say our, I’m particularly referring to us left-oriented middle-class earnest do-gooders. Like all good satire, it makes you think …
Eva, Pippa’s mother-in-law, is a good example. She “likes rescuing things”. For example, she employs refugees from a “not-for-profit catering group” to serve food at her parties, while wearing “garments stiffened with embroidery and beads. At throat and wrists she wore silver set with gems, some the colour of butter, others the colour of blood. These tribal ornaments lit Eva’s face, and proclaimed her solidarity with the wretched of the earth.”
In another example, her osteopath Rashida, who also happens to be a Muslim Indian immigrant, dines with Eva and her family. They quiz her about her background:
‘My parents thought that India wasn’t the best place for Muslims,’ said Rashida. ‘I love these potato pancakes, Eva. Could I have the recipe?’
‘Were you persecuted for your faith?’ Eva asked, hushed and hopeful.
Keith [Eva’s husband] said, ‘So you were privileged migrants.’
Rashida said nothing. She seemed to be turning the sentence over in her mind, trying to work out its shape.
De Kretser skewers Australians’ naiveté and blindness again and again, particularly regarding the horrors experienced by others, offsetting actual history against the idea of stories. Cassie, who is “postmodernly tutored”, thinks history is “just a set of competing stories” but Ash, born of a Scottish mother and Sir Lankan father, knows the difference between history and story, and understands exactly “the historical sequence that … brought a Tamil civil servant to the counter of a shop in the west of Sydney.” Cassie, Ash sees, “clung to an idea of Australia as a place where kindness prevailed over expediency”, her face denying “the existence of evil, the possibility of despair”. Ash, however, gobsmacked by her lack of awareness, wonders
What is wrong with you Australians? You eat curries without rice, a barbarism. You fear being attacked by people you’ve killed. You stole their land for animals that you slaughter in their millions, when you don’t leave them to die by the side of the road.
Pippa is no better than Cassie. She “saw Europe, momentous and world-historical, magnifying eventless Australia”, oblivious, clearly, to the barbarism enacted on our own shores. After all, as Ash is told when taken to his friend’s country home, “there’s no actual historical [my emphasis] record of a massacre.”
There are lighter, though no less satiric touches, such as Pippa’s telling Christabel about dining out with her literary agent:
We went to this amazing new Asian place at Darling Harbour. It’s been quite controversial because they do live sashimi. But Gloria and I talked about it, the cruelty aspect, and we decided it was Japanese cultural tradition so it was OK.
Where do we draw a line on cultural relativism?
The life to come is an uncomfortable book, particularly for Australians, because it suggests we are generally naive, and blundering, in our assumptions about and behaviour towards others, no matter how hard we try to be “good”. It’s also uncomfortable for us all as humans, because it exposes the gaps between our dreams and hopes for large lives and the reality that more often than not confronts us. The result is something that’s touching but also a bit pitiful.
Is this a Miles Franklin winner? I’m not sure. It may in fact try to do too much. But, is it a great read? Absolutely. I’d recommend it to anyone.
PS I read this with my reading group.