Michelle de Kretser, The life to come (#BookReview)

Michelle de Kretser, The life to comeMichelle 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 personal

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!

The sociocultural

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.

‘Not really.’

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.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book. And, for a non-Australian blogger, check out Guy’s post at His futile preoccupations.

PS I read this with my reading group.

AWW Badge 2018Michelle de Kretser
The life to come
North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN: 9781760296568

19 thoughts on “Michelle de Kretser, The life to come (#BookReview)

  1. Anything from Michelle de Kretser is brilliant. This skewering of do-gooder-pomposities – you’ve selected some excellent examples – could only come from someone who has both insider and outside perception – not unlike Yasmine GOONERATNE in her long ago novel (1991) A Change of Skies – skewering similar matters!

    • Thanks Jim. I’ve often thought I’d like to read A change of skies again as it’s been so long since I read it. But yes, I agree with you about de Kretser. She’s always good to read – such an interesting and fearless perspective on us and the world.

  2. Thanks for the mention, Sue… I hadn’t picked up on the other allusion with Pippa Passes (*Blush* I’ve read hardly anything of Robert Browning, and don’t remember any of it).
    Will she win? I’ve got no idea who might…

    • Haha Lisa. I drafted my post then went to find yours to link to and noticed you’d referenced a completely different Pippa Passes. (I will come back and comment but I published my post and then headed out the door to take my parents out for my regular Friday lunch. I’ll come back and comment on yours this evening when I can sit down quietly.) I don’t remember a lot of Browning but that title Pippa Passes did stick with me. I didn’t know the Rumer Goden book, but it sounds a valid allusion to me too.

      • I was a great fan of Rumer Godden in my younger days, and I read everything that my library had. So that’s why I remembered a middle-brow author instead of a proper poet!

        • I read a little Godden in my younger days, enough to remember that I liked her, but I don’t think I read Pippa Passes. I’ve just checked her on Wikipedia, She wrote a lot didn’t she?

  3. The book sounds like it has a lot going on. I seem to read a lot of complexly plotted books filled with stuff so it sounds up my ally. It also sounds like the uncomfortable truths that this book exposes are relevant to much of the world.

  4. This is obviously a book I should read – even if I have never read a C19th poet in my life – but at the moment it is not even on my TBR’s longlist for inclusion. I will say I believe Australians have gone beyond naivetee and are now willfully blind, led of course be a relentlessly right wing media. The Resident Judge put up an excellent article yesterday about 1968 being a turning point in our recognition of atrocities against Aborigines, but I would say not 10% of Australians would agree with the statement that there is incontrovertible evidence that Australian settlers aided by police engaged over and over in organized and premeditated murder.

    • Yes I had already flagged that essay in my own inbox Bill as I subscribe and donate to The Conversation.

      I hope you are wrong about 10%. I’d like to think it was a bit more than that but I’m probably kidding myself. It’s hard to gauge when you move in circles like yourself!

      Wilfully blind … hmm, perhaps you are right. We are certainly being given the opportunity these days to understand. But people do struggle. An issue is that many seem to think that indigenous people are or should be one, just like all of us balanda believe and think the same things! Really!

  5. Whenever there is a Beckett epigraph I inwardly groan a little. How unfair of me. Quite likely there is more of a match there than I care to admit. *chuckles* Anyway, I do still want to read this one – so I have only glanced at the body of your post – as I quite enjoyed an earlier book of hers (something about a dog, IIRC). Glad you enjoyed it so much!

  6. Pingback: August 2018 Round-up: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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