Questions of travel is about the many ways we travel and how it affects our lives – the distinctions between travellers and tourists, ex-patriates, and refugees. It’s told though the stories of two characters whose lives run in parallel, from the early 1970s to 2006.
There are so many wonderful things about this book, its hard to know where to start. Its already won the Miles Franklin and WA premiers prize and its not hard to see why. It touches on a fundamental Australian drive to flee the continent and travel the world, as well as the way in which we accept asylum seekers into our country.
Laura Fraser is a Sydney girl whose mother dies before she turns two, for which her twin brothers, eight years older, never forgive her. Her father barely notices her, except for an uncomfortable recognition of his own unattractive features that she’s inherited, unlike her brothers who take after their dead mother. Laura is raised by her Aunt Hester, who has lived in Europe in her younger days. I’m sure I’m not alone in being awestruck by aunts and relatives who had travelled overseas, bringing back the tcken souvenirs that seemed so exotic in a bland Australian childhood. The glamour is planted in Laura’s head and off she goes to Europe, for a long stint in London, then Naples, along the way making a successful career as a travel writer and falling for an unreachable alcoholic named Theo.
Eventually, the lure of Europe palls and she comes back to Sydney, where the second half of the story really picks up speed when it intersects with that of Ravi, a Sri Lankan man. Ravi is inspired by his geography teacher, who tells his students ‘Geography is destiny. It is old. It is iron.’ He marries and has a child, goes on to become a teacher and lecturer, riding the wave of the budding world wide web. But the growing political turmoil in Sri Lanka results in a devastating personal tragedy that culminates in him getting a tourist visa to Australia, where he claims asylum. There are many more things that happen to Laura and Ravi, who eventually meet in Sydney, but I don’t want to spoil the plot.
The overwhelming thing about this novel is the sheer beauty and skill of De Kretser’s prose. Over and over again, I was struck by her wonderful observations, the way she is able to skewer an idea so perfectly.
Describing her brother’s treatment of her, ‘He reached for her wrist and administered an expert Chinese burn. Then he began to laugh. It came out like vomit, in lumps.’
Then there’s the telling insights into character that are simply but devastatingly expressed. When Laura, packing up her dead Aunt Hester’s flat, finds a toffee tin containing every birthday card she had ever given Hester she thinks ‘I missed 1984. Charlie tried to console her, but like most people, Laura dispensed self-reproach in inverse proportion to the damage done.’ In fact De Kretser is a master at telling how characters really feel in a wise way, at just the right moment, without overdoing it.
Its hard not to smile ruefully in recognition of her honesty about Australians travelling overseas. So many of her observations rang true for me. On waking up in Bali she sees another Aussie throwing up and wonders ‘How many Balinese would visit Australia to spend up on bargains and vomit in the streets? What are you doing here? Now she knew that the whisper had nothing to do with Darrell. It merely pursued everyone who left home.’ There’s the ‘flowerchildren who had faded on the stem’ selling clothes in Hoxton, and of course the meeting with Theo in Hampstead, where ‘one advantage of being Colonial was that brazenness was expected, and overlooked, if not forgiven. So she spoke: and boldly, Australianly unlatched the gate; and proceeded to her involvement with Theo Newman.’ What Australian in London hasn’t felt that strange freedom to go for it at one time or another?
There is one thing though, that I wasn’t so keen on and that is that narrative rules, the scenes are sparse and there’s little dialogue. I think its harder to get inside the heads of characters if you don’t often hear them speak. I love dialogue and even though its hard, I love writing it. I think this is yet another lesson in playing to your strengths and narrative is clearly one of De Kretser’s many strengths.
The narrative is also told in third person, mainly close with Ravi and Laura, but occasionally jumps out to more omniscient and into other character’s heads, but she seems to make it work.
I could go on and on – the evocative writing about Sydney, that reminds you of the little things that are wonderful about this city, and some of the things that are not. How we feel about asylum seekers at arms length and how we treat strangers when they are in our midst, and how the internet has dictated the way we live, and the world of work. Its all here, in evocative, thoughtful detail. Oh that I could write as well, and explore ideas as cleverly, to even a fraction of the degree that Michelle De Kretser can.