Australian literary fiction is sometimes accused of lacking ambition. Michelle de Kretser’s fourth novel attempts to defy this criticism with a palimpsest of themes. Colonialism, ways of knowing, the soft incursion of technology, migration, tourism, the numbing bite of terror and the mean coinage of tolerance are just some of the topics that Questions of Travel encompasses.
Taking its title from a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, travel – preparing for, experiencing and reflecting on it – is this novel’s true north. The push from the quay, whether from want or need, is well examined, but all of it comes down to this: what does it mean to journey away from home?
Two characters sail out beyond the breakers: an Australian, Laura, and a Sri Lankan, Ravi.
Nearly drowned in infancy by her twin brothers as revenge for the death of their mother, Laura’s life begins with denial, an unacknowledged, sharply crenulated map of indifference by which her family wordlessly but constantly navigates. In the same way, Laura’s ‘too solid flesh’ is silently noted and limits the measure of attention she receives. Laura is cared for by her Aunt Hester, whose embroidered travel tales both awaken a desire, and mislead. Hester’s forlorn Morse code of travel stories is ‘a kind of flight’, trailing invented incident but ‘incidental to what mattered’. Hester’s death allows Laura the material means to travel, in distances measured out by the ubiquitous Lonely Planet:
Across the world, the world-weary were waiting. Time after time, Laura would learn that she had missed the moment; to be a tourist was always to arrive too late. If only Laura had seen Bangkok before the smog/Hong Kong before the Chinese/Switzerland before the Alps/the planet before the Flood.
Realising that the best connective tissue is perception, Laura travels alone, for the ‘dream of transcending tourism’ cannot be held to within sight of ‘another foreigner in a foolish hat’. The memory of ships in Lisbon’s harbour reminds her that their path:
… had once shrunk and expanded the world, mapping its modern configuration. Somewhere in that rage for profit and cartography, the outline of Australia had been waiting to take shape.
Time in London and friendship lead Laura to travel writing and, eventually, back to Sydney to work at a travel-guide company, high on the rhetoric of experience but screened from its authenticity by the paper-thin baffling of New Age management-speak. Laura is now in the business of prodding the ‘intractable matter’ of travel into a narrative of purpose, clear lines and chewable insight.
At another edge of the world’s oceans, in another colonial society, Ravi is born in a village with a view of Colombo airport, ‘its mobile constellations, multiplying’ denoting thousands of other journeys. Ravi’s tear-shaped island is soon to be bloody with a war of fits and dreadful starts. Yet thoughts of leaving are warded off: ‘Who’ll be left if we all emigrate?’ asks Ravi’s wife Malini. ‘Only idiots and brutes.’ Life, still possible, goes on but Ravi’s noted tolerance is less a worthy quality than a ‘profoundly cruel assessment’ born of expecting no better of people. Tragedy drives Ravi from his home, in the end, to seek asylum in Australia.
Technology crackles out from these pages in a way still remarkable for a literary novel. A digital camera begins a career, a laptop wheezes like a sick child, abandoned websites are collected beachcomber-like from their obscurity.
Laura and Ravi both live without the nudge of the intimacy of others and so order much of their experience through the small-worldliness of email, web page and glowing monitor. Even so, they feel the internet’s sheer reach ‘[undermines] … relativity; it offered sapphires and plastic with an even hand.’
From the theft of colonialism to the sticky gauze of the internet, Questions of Travel lacks no ambition in the themes it tackles. De Kretser builds a world richly detailed in everyday objects and people. Minor characters pop up in its swell and float off, inevitably leaving a clear impression. The sheer rollicking scale of this 500-plus-page novel, however, pitches the two central characters about in a lifeboat of stifled reaction. Laura’s character in particular is often drawn with antipathetic reference to her physicality, a technique that recalls Patrick White. But whereas White used disgust to burrow tick-like into a character, Laura’s fat is unsatisfying used as a flat explanation for her opacity.
Questions of Travel bubbles with memorable images and sharply turned phrases: a dog called Marmite yips the chorus of ‘Cold, Cold Heart’; laughter tumbles out of a character in lumps, like vomit; money is described as what grownups put in place of childish wishes.
But this declarative prose begins to work against the novel as it progresses. Ravi and Laura are boxed in – not fully expressed as characters – by all that isn’t left unsaid.
If fiction works to craft resonant questions, then Questions of Travel reads as if it knows its answers just a little too well.
Michelle de Kretser Questions of Travel Allen & Unwin 2013 PB 528pp $22.99
James Tierney is a freelance writer who blogs at A Long, Slow Goodbye and tweets as @ViragoHaus.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.