Friday, November 16, 2012

Stephanie Dowrick reads Michelle de Kretser's superb Questions of Travel

Australian prize-winning novelist Michelle de Kretser
My co-host on the Universal Heart Book Club, Walter Mason, is describing Michelle de Kretser’s new novel, Questions of Travel, as his book of the year for 2012. And it is truly deserving of such praise.

Only a relatively small number of writers could fairly be described as artists. De Kretser is among them. Even more rarely, she is someone who holds her talent in check. By that I mean she doesn’t use her technical or psychological skills or even her artistry to seduce readers or to create sensation for its own sake. On the contrary, she presents characters to us who are almost devastatingly ordinary. And yet, like all of us, they find themselves in both chosen and involuntary situations for which they are almost entirely unprepared.

There are two central characters in Questions of Travel (and many strongly realised minor characters). Laura is born in Australia, Ravi in Sri Lanka where de Kretser herself was born and raised. We follow these two people quite separately from the 1960s, in Laura’s case, and the 1970s, in Ravi’s, until 2004 when a devastating tsunami hits the beaches of Sri Lanka.

In the years between – the years of this long, unhurried novel - there are all kinds of emotional tsunamis also in these characters’ lives. Again, none feels forced.

Ours is a time of ubiquitous restlessness that takes us through many levels of “travel”. This is captured particularly well in the telling of Laura’s story as she leaves different countries, jobs, lovers, friends…sometimes with a sense of direction or purpose, more often not. She is carried forward more by impulse than insight, and we feel the dangers and familiar insecurity of that with her.

Ravi’s story is of course very different. The "difference" is stark and undisguised. It's the chasm between living in a world of more - or less - choice. Ravi's “travels” are far less voluntary, including his hard-won journey to Australia. Without his feisty, immensely likeable, sometimes foolish wife, without his beloved child, Ravi is seeking asylum from a country that he has loved and still loves but where he can no longer feel or expect safety.
I must rush to say right away, though, that while Ravi's story makes clearer the complex, sometimes extreme feelings of being forced to seek, to beg asylum from those unwilling to offer it, this is not a “refugee novel” – if such a category exists. No one is stereotyped, trivialized or romanticized; there are no facile assumptions made about one set of experiences over another. The novel is more humane, truthful and profound than that. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself more interested sometimes in Ravi’s stories than Laura’s, and yet I could certainly see that while Laura’s life is far safer and more desirable in very real ways, she is also inwardly displaced. In this, Laura is known to us. Indeed, I suspect that many readers will recognise Laura in their friends or themselves, and will feel great empathy with her efforts to fill her life and make it meaningful.

In a recent interview de Kretser said that she loves detail in fiction. “That’s my sense of the material, the concrete… The novel needs the stench of life.”  Her attention to detail is highly sensual, painterly but – again – there is no sense that she’s slapping on extra paint because she could. The details make the book desirably long. The short story-like episodes are mostly crowded, urgent and require leisurely reading. But they also accumulate purposefully creating a mature, deeply thoughtful and unpredictable novel.  I urge you to read it.

Michelle de Kretser's novel is available in hardcover only - and is worthy of its handsome production and place on your shelf. You can find it through our bookstore affiliates (top right) on this blog. We also welcome your comments and opinions!

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