‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser

Questions-of-travel

Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 528 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If books won prizes for ambition alone, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel should win every gong going. This is a “widescreen” novel that explores the interconnectedness of our lives brought about by the advent of the internet, cheap travel and globalisation.

Dual narrative

The book spans 40 years and follows two characters — Australian Laura Fraser and Sri Lankan Ravi Mendis — whose tales are divided into two separate narrative threads. These two characters are poles apart, not least the ways in which they travel the globe.

Laura is a drifter, who has the freedom to travel across the world wherever her Australian passport might take her; Ravi is forced to flee Sri Lanka under difficult circumstances and seeks political asylum in Australia, never knowing whether he will be shipped back home against his will.

The pair eventually meet, but that’s not really the climax, nor purpose, of the story, which covers  many issues and topics associated with “travel”, including the way in which the development of the internet and cheap personal computers made the world smaller. Indeed, following these character’s lives is a journey in itself.

Laura, who uses an inheritance to travel around the world, leads the kind of life to which many of us might aspire. But even though she lives in London for several years, there are pitfalls to never putting roots down in one place — she doesn’t have a proper career, nor a settled relationship. But when she returns to Sydney and begins working for a travel guide company (a thinly disguised version of Lonely Planet), there is no miracle “cure” for her dislocation.

By contrast, Ravi, an academic who develops one of the first websites and understands the potential of the internet, has no choice but to leave his homeland following the brutal murder of his wife and young son. When he seeks political asylum in Australia there is the constant fear that he will be returned home, even though he would love to see other family members and continue his life before it was so viciously interrupted.

Thoughtful and intelligent

There’s no doubt that Questions of Travel is a thoughtful and intelligent novel, the type of novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring big issues — in fact, on more than one occasion it reminded me very much of last year’s Giller Prize-winning novel, 419, by Will Ferguson, which was equally ambitious in scope and outlook.

But this is also one of those rare books that is all about the detail — incredible detail. Indeed, there’s so much detail in this book, it requires a lot of concentration and attention from the reader. It is not an effortless read. It is not a book to rush through.

Because of this it took a long time for me to get “into” the story and, just occasionally, I found it dragged in places. This may be partly to do with the author’s prose style, which felt convoluted and “showy”, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed her descriptions, particularly of objects and places, which were evocative and often quite beautiful. Likewise, her characters are wonderful — quirky, original, authentic and memorable.

But it is the little revelations, scattered throughout the narrative, that makes the book such an entertaining and often surprising read. And the ending, which almost made me fall off my chair with the shock of it, is one of the most powerful and totally unexpected conclusions I’ve ever read in contemporary fiction. Weeks later I’m still thinking about it — just as I am also thinking about all the many issues thrown up by this extraordinary, eloquent and deeply moving novel.

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11 thoughts on “‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser

  1. Oh dear. I almost never abandon books (I can count the ones I have on one hand) but I’m afraid I gave up on this one at just past halfway through (page 277 to be exact). Of course, your saying it has a fall-off-your-chair ending is making me wonder if I should have persevered! But…
    I found ‘The Lost Dog’ slow and dull, but ‘Questions of Travel’ was a complete slog and so unrewarding. I did enjoy the first 50 pages (the story about the Aunt who goes on holidays to Europe would have made a good short story) but I’m beginning to think maybe de Kretser just isn’t for me.
    A book of over 500 pages needs some sort of plot or engaging characters to hold my interest and this has neither – just a long stream of musings on travel and modern living, and in Laura and Ravi two characters who never come to life – for me they were just names to attach to the ideas. And many of those ideas are indeed interesting but I didn’t find them especially original (do we travel to escape to something, or from something; the way in which air travel in particular made the world simultaneously smaller and bigger; the internet as a means of travel… none of these are new ideas).
    There are some arresting images (as you say, Kim, she can write a fine description), but the prose style is what really stopped me getting into it.
    De Kretser seems to abhor anything that even whiffs of unnecessary exposition, which is admirable in its way but it meant I sometimes struggled to get hold of scenes: I lost count of the number of times a line completely threw me and I’d go back to the start of the scene and read it again thinking I must’ve missed something, but no, often she simply doesn’t give you enough information to build a mental image from.
    There is also the odd bit of dodgy writing: a room is described as being “lit by bluish-white electricity” – I know what she means (blueish-white electric light) but surely that sentence is technically incorrect? And one that made me laugh out loud: “As she passed, his eyes ran over but didn’t acknowledge her”.
    But, it has won the Miles Franklin (and been shortlisted for other awards) so I’m prepared to accept it is just me that didn’t ‘get’ this book. Certainly it isn’t bad, and it may well have improved in the last 200 pages if I’d stuck with it. But sometimes a reader just doesn’t click with an author (Peter Carey is another one for me) and I think that is the case here for me.

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  2. I’m not sure if this is the done thing on someone else’s blog (sorry Kim if I am breaching blog etiquette) but do you have a blog David? You have lots of interesting bookish thoughts….

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  3. I think you bring up some valid points, David — though I dont agree with all of them 😉
    As I point out in my review above, I did initially struggle with the prose style. I think thats because I like things pared down and eloquent (which is why I favour Irish writers, who seem to just do this naturally), so when I come across writing that appears convoluted I struggle with it. But.. but… I think its good to be taken out of my comfort zone every now and then, and once I get into the swing of it, I usually very much enjoy stylists who do different things with words. Nadine Gordimer is a case in point.
    Interesting that the characters didnt come alive for you… I thought they were both incredibly well drawn. I loved Ravi — and his character has stayed with me since finishing the book — but I found Laura far less likable. Not that it should matter, of course, as to whether a character is likable or not.
    As for Peter Carey, I find hes a hit-and-miss writer for me — I adore some of his work, others I just cant get into. Id urge you to give him another go 🙂

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  4. Ha! No I don’t, and that’s probably why I waffle so much on other people’s (I know I really shouldn’t).

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  5. Hi Sharkell, people who comment dont have to agree with my review — as long as their comments dont resort to personal attack. David doesnt have a blog, but he comments here regularly and brings lots of insightful views & thoughts, and I think our reading tastes generally chime. So its interesting to see Questions of Travel didnt quite work for him. That said, I do think this is one of those books that you have to be prepared to work at & immerse yourself in — its not a light, effortless read. Its a book jam-packed with ideas (and questions) — that kind of literature doesnt work for everyone. I wonder, too, if it might not be a peculiarly Australian novel, seeing as we are a nation of travellers & are constantly protecting the borders from boat people and so on… ???

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  6. Very chuffed this book has won. Ive not read the others on the shortlist, but Questions of Travel does strike me as the kind of ambitious novel that should win awards.

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  7. I love reading both your reviews and other people’s comments – it gives me a pretty good indication as to whether or not I will like the book (and I usually like what you like too). I have an earlier De Kretser in my tbr pile which I shall try before I attempt this one. David, sorry to hear you don’t blog but I shall continue to enjoy reading your comments when I see them.

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  8. That is clever! And it will be a great book to discuss — it throws up so many issues, many of which are super-relevant to an Australian audience.

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