Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin, 2012)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington
Questions of Travel is a journey where “geography was beside the point”, mirroring the feelings expressed in the late Elizabeth Bishop’s 1960s poem of the same title.
Tourism, terrorism, the words sound similar and here the one is interwoven with the other. Against a backdrop of mainly Australian and Sri Lankan politics, Australian-based Sri-Lankan-born Michelle de Kretser has written, at over 500 pages, her longest book yet. It’s probably a good thing this wasn’t her first book; reviewers may not have had time to read it. There was nothing but well-merited praise for her earlier, more concise, works, The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog.
Questions of Travel oscillates between two life stories, those of Australian Laura, “a late-twentieth century global person” and Sri Lankan Ravi, who longs to be part of the digital revolution. Laura and Ravi, Ravi and Laura – will they ever meet? Their meandering stories build asymmetrically, with chapters flitting from one character to the other or, sometimes, not. I found it daunting to think of how far and by what circuitous routes I must travel to get to the probable dissecting point in their lives. But I warmed to the whole structure as the book matured, the building became more substantial and clean-lined and I could stop wanting to graffiti it with my red editing pen.
Some sentences redeem the irritating journey with comedy, such as: “…Laura could see why he would appeal to a certain kind of woman. He looked capable and generic, like a man in a training video demonstrating CPR”; or with poetry, as when “Skeletons of light twitched in the water.” And in Manhattan, “the contemporary wasn’t architectural but invisible, hidden in towers full of screens, buried in coaxial cables, carried in bytes”. Horrific scenes are presented as shockingly as the bucket of cold water a sister pours over a brother near a well; they are as unexpected as if we open the door or feel the water ourselves. An old-fashioned manual viewfinder, wandering through the book like Richard Scarry’s Lowly Worm, is a nice symbol for glimpsing worlds, real and unreal, attainable and unattainable.
There’s fantasy travelling along with actual travelling, daydreams of “other” wherever we are. There’s the misplaced romanticism of tourists seeking authenticity in places where residents’ realities are poverty, hunger and discomfort. There’s another kind of voyeuristic tourism on the “information superhighway” used for late night website trawling. “Glimpsed lives were addictive: Laura cruised the confessions of strangers, their aversions and apartments, the recipes they recommended, their responses to the news.” She and Ravi are today’s travellers, following signposts to places they don’t always want to go to, and for very different reasons. As soon as we move into Part 2 Ravi’s scenery changes to the new and unfamiliar while Laura’s changes to the old and familiar and the story gathers pace.
What I missed with this book, particularly in Part 1, was my lack of needing to know what happened next. If I hadn’t been reviewing this book, I would have yawned my way out of it after 50 pages, knowing I had so many more to go. As with most travel – and with most lives – there is no rainbow path and no crock of gold.
Apparently de Kretser wept when she realised how long this book was becoming. She wasn’t wrong. If you want to read it, pack for a long journey full of many tedious stays along the way. But, ultimately, it’s worth the journey. And do read her earlier books.