Michelle de Kretser's previous novels include the award-winning The Lost Dog - a book that marries mystery and love with dazzling elegance and suspense. Her new novel, Questions Of Travel, is written with similar flair.
De Kretser was born in Sri Lanka, immigrated to Australia at the age of 14 and studied in Melbourne and Paris. Her global shifts will have assisted in bringing the locations and issues of her latest novel alive on the page.
The novel features two parallel narrative strands that remain unconnected for a significant chunk of the book. Laura occupies the first part. An adolescent Australian in the 1970s, as a two-year-old she was almost drowned by her jealous twin brothers (they blamed her for their mother's death). A dreamer, reader, freelance-travel writer, Laura never manages to put down roots as she moves from one city to another, living in hotels and house sitting and forging her strongest relationships with gay men.
Ravi occupies the second strand. He was born in Sri Lanka and as a child is drawn to geography (lessons by Brother Ignatious and his sister's precious atlas), but he is persuaded to drop that and pursue maths. He marries Malini, a smart, politicised woman who works to improve the lives of others no matter the risk. Ravi moves into a bits and pieces career in IT.
Sri Lanka is in a state of unrest with spreading violence and disappearances, and Ravi's life is catastrophically affected.
At first I wondered if (and how) the protagonists of each strand would cross paths and then it didn't seem to matter as I became hooked in the individual stories.
I eventually decided Ravi and Laura might never cross paths, and I began to accumulate the things they held in common - lost parents, a fascination with the wider world, degrees of aloneness. It almost feels like a spoiler to divulge whether or not they do, yet the fact Ravi and Laura end up in the same Australian workplace is a minor chord in a major work.
The narratives are built from the minutiae of life, the comings and goings, the little encounters of routine and surprise. Miniature markers of time and place add nostalgic zing to the narrative: Doc Martens, Fleetwood Mac, listening to the Police on a Walkman, eating Tim Tams, drinking bad coffee, good coffee, surfing the net.
The everyday detail is infused with aphorisms. On Australian children: "When did we decide love was a curdling agent?" On reality/concrete: "something grey that spread and trapped".
As the title suggests, the crucial layer of the book concerns the questions of travel. A key question - "why travel?" - might be a matter of life and death, a need to survive, to defer responsibility or to escape from mundane routine. At what point do you absorb a place so you always carry it with you? When does tourist become traveller? When does the familiar offer the same degree of satisfaction as the lure of the unfamiliar? Can digital travel match the backpack?
De Kretser continues to write substantial novels that reflect upon recent times with a graceful hand.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.