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What are you doing here?

May 10, 2013
Michelle de Kretser

Michelle de Kretser (Photo: Allen & Unwin)

Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel, 2012

Questions of Travel tells the stories of two people who leave their homeland. Laura departs Sydney to see the world, while terrible events force Ravi to flee Sri Lanka to seek asylum in Australia.

Michelle de Kretser makes the reader feel Ravi’s experience – the horrors that prompt his flight, his reception in Australia – thereby cracking apart the stereotyping so often applied to refugees. Through the particulars of one individual, we can begin to see the diversity behind the label.

Laura spends her twenties and thirties abroad, and then returns to Sydney, becoming a guidebook editor at Ramsay, a Lonely Planet look-alike. Laura’s story invites us to think deeply about travel. At one point, she fears she has lost her faith in “away” by working at Ramsay. “There, everything was known about travel. That was true in the same way that a city was Sights, Markets, Itineraries, Eating. Guidebooks lured with the Taj by moonlight, with Machu Picchu at dawn. But the moment that mattered on each journey resisted explanation. It couldn’t be looked up under spoil yourself because it addressed only the individual heart. It was only an empty Kleenex box, only a dangling wire hanger, only a battered hillside in a cold spring.”

The novel’s title is taken from Questions of Travel, a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. Lines from the poem are used as an epigraph:

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty.

Lines from the same poem are found in the epigraph to another book on the Miles Franklin shortlist, Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?

Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
In this strangest of theatres?

In de Kretser’s book, these lines are echoed in an insistent whisper – What are you doing here? – that follows Laura around the world – Bali, Lisbon, London – but also finds her in Sydney. For Ravi the question is implied. It conveys the sense of displacement that both characters experience.

As I read I wondered if the book had to be so long, whether so much lavish detail was needed to build the characters. In his review, James Tierney says: “Ravi and Laura are boxed in – not fully expressed as characters – by all that isn’t left unsaid.” Usually I would agree that less is more, but for me the accumulation of incident and detail do result in fully expressed characters. They are two ordinary people, but I felt with them, and they will stay with me. I think the book is as long as it needs to be.

While giving the book extravagant praise, AS Byatt notes that it “isn’t easy to read because the reader is always in danger of missing something significant.” ANZ Litlovers says it is “one of those books that demand time and concentration.” I agree with both reviewers that the effort of reading the book is amply rewarded. The main pleasure is the well-crafted prose. Here is Laura looking out over Sydney harbour: “Ferries passed, lit up like cakes. The bridge went on holding the two halves of the city apart. On Saturday evening, everywhere was oysters and mozzies on sandstone terraces. Screams of gaudy terror noosed the minarets of Luna Park.”

In another scene, Laura is summoned to New Year’s Eve drinks at her father and step-mother’s Darling Point penthouse. “She crossed the living room as commanded, a journey of several minutes, to admire The View. This was reduced by twenty-one floors of steel and reinforced concrete to a scale model of itself. Laura contemplated the iconic sights: a midden of white shells, a toytown arch spanning a blue puddle. The value these diminished splendours added was laid out for her delectation along with the amuse-bouches.”

I have read three of the five books on the Miles Franklin shortlist, and while all three are superb, Michelle de Kretser’s craft puts her ahead of the other two by a nose.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2013 6:20 pm

    It’s on my shortlist of three, but I’m still dithering over which one I’d like to win it!

    • Bryce permalink*
      May 12, 2013 10:50 am

      Yes – in a race there is a single criterion and (usually) a clear winner. Books – how does one weight all the multifarious dimensions? The only rational response is to dither.

      • May 12, 2013 4:38 pm

        Dithering is an art form, one that I am very good at!

  2. August 1, 2013 10:40 pm

    Great review Bryce. And you used a quote I liked to – the one about the moment that matters in a journey. I loved that. I read James Tierney’s comment that “Ravi and Laura are boxed in – not fully expressed as characters – by all that isn’t left unsaid.” Like you, I usually argue that “less is more” but every page in this book was a joy. However, I did rather feel that Ravi and Laura were “not fully expressed as characters”. I think the satirical style and the focus on ideas mitigated against that but somehow it didn’t worry me … I still wanted to read on and see what they did and what happened to them. Does that make sense?

    • Bryce permalink*
      August 2, 2013 9:15 am

      It does make sense. I suspect that every fine work of literary fiction breaks the “rules” for writing such fiction in some way, but that as result it becomes a better book. Perhaps that’s the power of a true artist.

      • August 2, 2013 6:24 pm

        I think it is … that is, great works/great artists tend to break the rules.

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