By Michelle de KretserFiction Allen & Unwin
Questions of Travel
Michelle de Kretser is an ambitious writer. Her novels are serious but also playful, driven by the exploration of ideas as well as the journey of her characters. ‘They get their unique flavour from the way they bring together cerebration and poetic sensuousness,’ says the Monthly.
Her fourth novel, Questions of Travel, follows the parallel narratives of two very different characters, from very different circumstances. Australian Laura travels the world before returning to Sydney to work for a global travel publisher. Sri Lankan Ravi dreams of being a tourist until he is driven from home by devastating events, and comes to Australia seeking asylum.
The big theme at the core of this novel is travel in the age of globalisation – both physical travel and the virtual tourism encouraged by the internet. But it’s about so much more than that: friendship, working life, family, migration and the different perspectives we bring to all of it. Laura and Ravi’s experiences of travel and migration are offset by a diverse supporting cast, from Theo, whose life plays out in the long shadow of the past, to Hana, an Ethiopian woman determined to reinvent herself in Australia.
The New York Times called Questions of Travel ‘tart, thoughtful and frequently moving … almost Tolstoyan in scale and range’.
This is a thoroughly contemporary novel, deeply concerned with the way we live now, and with examining Australian life juxtaposed onto a global stage. This patchwork of perspectives and backgrounds casts an outsider’s eye on the familiar, and a familiar gaze on the outside world.
Questions of Travel is about our reasons for travelling: tourism and terror, self-discovery and self-preservation, individualism and globalisation. Told through alternating chapters, we see Europe through the eyes of Australian Laura and Australia through the eyes of Sri Lankan refugee Ravi. Laura’s life is one of assorted journeys, bad affairs and unsatisfactory friendships, while Ravi finds himself mired in family and migrant mayhem.
Though they become colleagues at a travel guide company, de Kretser subverts reader expectations of a meaningful connection, instead delivering tart observations about work, technology, family, friendship, migration and belonging, as well as throwing in digressive subplots that are provocative and playful. This ambitious novel negotiates political and cultural issues with refreshing intelligence and humor.
We’re all travellers now. Whether we physically fly around the planet for work, pleasure or to escape political turmoil; or simply graze on connected screens, consuming information and entertainment that has no national borders, there’s a rootlessness and restlessness that characterises (post) modern existence. ‘What are you doing here?’ is a question that recurs often in Michelle de Kretser’s stunningly clever fourth novel, Questions of Travel, and the answers are complex and multilayered for the two characters at the heart of her story.
Ravi Mendis is born and raised in Sri Lanka (like the author herself). Struggling in genteel poverty in a small seaside suburb outside of Colombo, he ponders his tiny place on a crinkled map of the world and yearns for freedom and escape. He rages against his teacher’s assertion that ‘History is only a byproduct of geography’, even as he suspects the truth of the statement.
When gruesome tragedy occurs in the midst of the civil war with Tamil insurgents, Ravi manages to flee the country. He finds himself safe, albeit lonely and haunted, in the glittering confusion of Sydney in the early 2000s. Aided by kind but ignorant Australians, he lives in limbo during the processing of his application for refugee status. The fact that he arrived by plane instead of boat seems to confuse those he meets. ‘Why are you here?’ is a question he’d rather not answer, especially not in the service of frivolous small talk with people who simply want to consume his ‘otherness’ and exoticism.
The book’s second protagonist, Laura Fraser, is an Australian doctor’s daughter. Abandoning her art studies, she uses a small inheritance to travel to Europe, where she minds other people’s house and writes for travel magazines. Unhappy in love and homeless by choice, she’s aware of the ironies and inequities that fund her lifestyle in the tourism industry, with its fruitless quest for the authentic foreign experience. ‘Why are you here?’ is a question that worries Laura. Moving home to Sydney, where she works as an editor of travel guidebooks, she feels a small and helpless pang at the realisation that a tragedy in the third world means less to her than meeting a deadline or responding to the barrage of inane office emails. But how should one respond when resources and attention are so limited and the physical demands of the body so consuming?
Having won numerous prizes already (including the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction), Questions of Travel is an impressive novel of ideas about the ‘way we live now’, and the struggle to maintain stable relationships and identities amidst the flux. If the characters sometimes seem like ciphers or symbols – the bearers of ideas rather than fully fleshed and sympathetic humans – this is forgivable because the ideas are so intelligent and sharply observed. People and situations are elegantly drawn, with flashes of wise and biting wit, like these examples plucked at random:
‘…this was in the first year of their marriage, and they hadn’t yet learned to look on each other’s wishes as flaws.’
‘Then he began to laugh. It came out like vomit, in lumps.’
‘…she was struck afresh by the fraudulence of souvenirs that suggested pleasure while commemorating flight.’
The passages evoking the madness and intensity of the modern workplace, as well as the sections of the book detailing the immigrant’s perspective on the privileged and blithely innocent Australian culture, are particularly strong, and are bound to inform and complicate readers’ future interactions with other cultures. (It almost goes without saying that this is a good thing, though this novel would never stoop to such didacticism.)
The book is written in dense, epigrammatic prose that requires full concentration. Slipped in amidst an accretion of beautifully rendered detail might be the plot twist that changes everything, or the almost elusive mention of a devastating detail. Readers will need to stay alert until the very last page, which contains, in A.S. Byatt’s words, ‘an extraordinary ending’ that pulls all the loosely woven strands together, in a startling and fitting conclusion for such a grand and ambitious work.
Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne-based writer, reviewer and editor. She is working on her first novel.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist