Sunday, August 18, 2013

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

When I'm not sure what book to read next, I'll go through my TBR pile, reading the first page of each until I know I've got the right one. Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel begins with a chapter titled 'Laura, 1960s.'

"When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.
They were eight when she was born. Twenty-three months later, their mother died. Their father's aunt Hester, spry and recently back in Sydney after half a lifetime in London, came to look after the children until a suitable arrangement could be made. She stayed until Laura left school."

I couldn't resist that opening and soon decided this is De Kretser's finest book yet. (See also my reviews of her earlier novels, The Hamilton Case and The Rose Grower.) Obviously I'm not the only one who likes Questions of Travel because it's been sweeping the medals in Australia this year -- the Miles Franklin, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and the Prime Minister's Literary Award.

Interleaved narratives follow two people of the same age through their entire lives. Laura Fraser leaves university to travel the world before eventually returning to Australia to work for a travel guide publisher. Ravi Mendis grows up in Sri Lanka, where devastating events force him to seek asylum in Australia.

As in the Zimbabwe setting of NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names, children's games in Sri Lanka mimic the violence in their immediate world:

"Ravi lit a cigarette and remained at his post. A different game started up below. The children ran around until one shouted, 'Bomb!' At once, the others threw themselves to the ground, where they lay spread-eagled and very still. After a little while, they got up and ran around again. Ravi couldn't see the point of this game. But there were days when the children played it nonstop."

Universal truths about our connections to geography and to other people are revealed through finely-drawn individual characters. Foreign places are variously experienced by tourists, immigrants, and refugees. Questions of Travel spans the globe and incorporates world events of the past 50 years. Instead of trying to choose from among the many eloquent passages flagged while reading, I'll just say that I highly recommend it.

(Those of you who love excerpts, please stay with me, right to the bottom. I can't return this book to the library without saving some of this great stuff.)

Readalikes: A Disobedient Girl (Ru Freeman) and Five Bells (Gail Jones).

"Laura thought, Perhaps suffering isn't a sign that God is absent or indifferent or cruel. Perhaps all the horrible things happen because he just gets distracted. She was sixteen, a metaphysical age. The Absentminded Almighty: having created him in her image, she felt quite protective of him and worshipped him tenderly until the phase passed."

"Hefty eucalypts filled tiny yards: broccoli jammed into bud vases. The trees must have been planted in the optimistic sixties, when minds expanded and it had seemed that everything else must follow."

"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. Paradise was lost: prosperity had intervened, or politics. The earthquake had finished off Naples. Giuliani had wrecked New York. Immigrants ruined wherever they squatted. France -- well, Fance had always been blighted by the necessary evil of the French. But if only Laura had seen Bangkok before the smog/Hong Kong before the Chinese/Switzerland before the Alps/the planet before the Flood."

"Nimal, too, kept in touch. He no longer worked for RealLanka; the company had folded. Hugely successful at first, it had fallen to a creeping malaise. Clients began to complain that the experiences for which they had paid handsomely and in hard currency lacked authenticity. Those who chose to stay with urban families were affronted when their hosts addressed them in English or invited them to watch reruns of American soaps. A Norwegian wrote that the household into which he had been thrust was grossly materialistic. He had been assured that these people were Buddhists, yet five curries had waited on the table, including beef. A new Zealander demanded a refund: her hosts' eleven-year-old daughter had confided that when she grew up she wanted to be just like Britney Spears."

"Tracy moistened her lips with peppermint tea and explained to Laura that she was part time at the gallery. Because Destiny was only three, although you'd never know it, everyone from the swimming coach to the piano teacher said she was so advanced for her age. That was when Tracy had known she'd made the right decision about her future, meeting Stew the very same week she moved back to Sydney. you had to believe in karma, n'est-ce pas, darl? Had she mentioned that Stew was a Buddhist? But not in that fundamentalist vegetarian way."

"The true [travel] guidebook would advise: 'Pay attention, be kind, think twice, shut up.'"

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