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

Michelle de Kretser, Questions of travel (Review)

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
ISBN: 9781743317334

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

Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge completed – and Miles Franklin Award Winner 2013

Australian Women Writers ChallengeAs regular readers here know by now, last year I broke my non-challenge rule to take part in the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. It was so satisfying, I decided to do it again this year. After all, it’s really the challenge I’d do when I’m not doing a challenge.

Like last year, I signed up for the top level: Franklin-fantastic. This required me to read 10 books and review at least 6. I have now exceeded this – and will continue to add to the challenge, as I did last year – but one of the requirements of completing the challenge is to provide a link to a complete challenge post. Here is that post.

I have, in fact, contributed 13 reviews to the challenge to date, but decided to wait to write my completion post until I’d read 10 books. I have now done that – with the other three being individual short stories or essays.

Johnston, House at Number 10 bookcover

Courtesy: Wakefield Press

Here’s my list in alphabetical order, with the links on the titles being to my reviews:

Except for the Baynton, Astley and Johnston reviews, they are all for very recent publications. I would like in the second half of the year to read some more backlist, more classics. Will I do it? Watch this space!

Miles Franklin Award winner for 2013 …

has been announced and it is Michelle de Kretser‘s Questions of travel. I’m pretty thrilled as this is the book my reading group decided to do in July (from the shortlist). As much as I enjoyed Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds, it has won two significant awards this year already, and I don’t think it serves literature well for one book to have a stranglehold on a year’s awards – unless there really is only one great book published in a year but that would really be a worry wouldn’t it?!

You can read about the announcement on the Miles Franklin Literary Award site.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Asian Australian writers

Brian Castro

Brian Castro (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Australia is an immigrant country, with the first immigrants, the original Aboriginal Australians, believed to have arrived 40-60,000 (there are arguments about this!) years ago via the Indonesian archipelago. They established what is now regarded as one of the longest surviving cultures on earth. Today, though, I’m going to write on some of our more recent immigrants – those from Asia. The first big wave of Asian immigrants came from China, during the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. Since then people from all parts of Asia have, for various reasons, decided to call Australia home – and have enriched our culture immeasurably.

I’m not going to focus on the political issues regarding acceptance, promotion and encouragement of Asian Australian writers because, like any stories to do with immigration, it’s too complex for a quick post here. I hope that things are improving, but only the writers and communities themselves can really tell us that.

As has been my practice in these sorts of posts, I’m going to introduce 5 Asian Australian writers to get the discussion going. After that, I’d love you readers to share “immigrant” writers you know and love …

But first, a definition. My focus here will be on writers who emigrated from Asia, rather than those from subsequent generations. I will not therefore be discussing writers like Shaun Tan and Alice Pung.

Brian Castro (Hong Kong born in 1950, emigrated 1961)

Castro is one of the most prolific and most awarded writers among those I’m listing today. He came here as a child, and started writing short stories in 1970. He has, to date, published 9 novels, many of them winning major Australian literary awards. Lisa at ANZLitLovers suggests he is a contender for Australia’s next (should we ever have another one) Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1996, in the Australian Humanities Review, Castro said this about Australia and Asia:

The situation currently is that Australia needs Asia more than Asia needs it. While the West seems to have run out of ideas in the creative and cultural fields, relying on images of sex and violence, reviving old canons and dwindling to parody and satire in what can already be seen as one of the dead ends of postmodernism, the Asian region is alive with opportunities for a new hybridisation, a collective intermix and juxtaposition of styles and rituals which could change the focus and dynamics of Australian art, music and language.

Strong words – but they make you think! My sense is that Australia is now seeing (accepting?) some of this hybridisation that he speaks of – not only from Asia but also from our indigenous authors like Kim Scott and Alexis Wright. I wonder if Castro agrees?

Yasmine Gooneratne (Sri Lankan born, emigrated 1972)

Gooneratne is one of the first Asian Australian writers I read. I have chosen her for that reason and for some sentimental reasons: she holds a Personal Chair in English at my alma mater, Macquarie University, and she is the patron of the Jane Austen Society of Australia! Long ago I read her first, appropriately named, novel, Change of skies (1991). Like many first novels, it has an autobiographical element and explores the challenges of changing skies, of migrating to another place. It was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. She has, in the last decade, received a number of awards here and in the South Asia region for her contribution to literature.

Michelle de Kretser (Sri Lankan born, emigrated 1972)

Like Castro, de Kretser emigrated to Australia in her youth (when she was 14) and made quite a splash with her debut novel set during the French Revolution, The rose grower. Her second novel, The Hamilton case is set in Sri Lanka and represents she says her “considered” farewell to her country of birth. Her third novel, The lost dog, is set in her home-city (now) of Melbourne, but its main character migrated to Australia from Asia when he was 14 and struggles to find his identity. Her books are not self-consciously migrant but tend, nonetheless, to be informed by the experience of dislocation.

Nam Le (Vietnamese-born, emigrated 1979)

Nam Le is our youngest migrant in this list, arriving here when he was less than 1! His debut book, the short story collection, The boat (2008), won multiple awards and is remarkable for its diversity of content (setting and subject matter) and voice. I, like many others, am waiting to see what he produces next.

Ouyang Yu (Chinese born, emigrated 1991)

To my shame I hadn’t heard of Ouyang Yu until relatively recently, but I do have an excuse. He has only written three novels in English and two of them very recently: The eastern slope chronicle (2002), The English class (2010), and Loose: A Wild History (2011). He is, however, a prolific writer, of, apparently, 55 (yes, 55!) books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and translated works in English and Chinese. He’s translated Christina Stead, no less, and even Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch. If this is not contributing to cross-cultural understanding I don’t know what is.

I’ll close with some words from an interview with Michelle de Kretser in which she articulates rather nicely I think the experience of being a migrant (using the character Tom from The lost dog):

But I think that like a lot of people who come to Australia, Tom is trying to escape something. You know, people come here often because they’re trying to get away from war, or poverty or persecution — or merely from perhaps difficult family situations. And I think Tom coming here as a child simply delights in the kind of freedom and anonymity that Australia offers him, which is a classic experience of people moving countries, or indeed if you go back to the 18th century people moving from the city to the country; the city at once offers this kind of blissful possibility of inventing yourself anew, a kind of wonderful freedom from inherited ways of thinking and being identified and categorised. On the other hand that is also simultaneously — can be — a very lonely and disconcerting experience, again.