Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 384 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I realise we’re only a quarter of the way through 2018 but I think it’s safe to say that Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come is going to be in my top 10 at the end of the year.
There’s something about de Kretser’s silky prose combined with her superbly drawn characters and her forensic eye for detail that makes this novel — her first since winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award with Questions of Travelin 2013 — truly sing. Throw in fierce intelligence and sparkling wit and you have an absorbing book that I raced through — all 384 pages of it — in a matter of days.
A story in five parts
The Life to Come isn’t a conventional novel. It is divided into five parts, each of which could be read as a standalone novella or (quite long) short story. Some characters flit between parts, but on the whole, these are separate (and richly vivid) character studies about people living in contemporary Australia who have found their lives play out in ways they didn’t expect.
There is Ash, a British academic now living in Sydney, whose girlfriend Cassie is bewitched by his exotic Sri Lankan heritage; Pippa, a Sydney-based writer, who longs for success and struggles to like her well-to-do in-laws; her old friend Celeste, a Perth-born translator now residing in Paris, who has taken a younger lover who doesn’t quite love her back; and Christabel, another Sri Lankan, who has reunited with her childhood friend Bunty and is growing old with her in a house next door to Pippa.
There’s no central plot and yet each part thrusts you into the stimulating and fascinating inner — and outer — worlds of interesting and complex people, all striving to live authentic, successful and happy lives and sometimes falling, failing or following unexpected tangents. It’s very much about finding small pleasures in our day to day existence and there’s much subtle commentary about the struggles of leading a creative life and of finding your place in the world if you (or your parents) come from somewhere else.
A laugh-out-loud funny satire
The blurb on the back of the UK edition calls The Life To Come a “delicious satire on the way we live now and a moving examination of the true nature of friendship”. I would entirely agree.
Not only does this novel feel immediate and of the moment, layered with meaning and insight into modern living in one of the world’s most affluent countries, it’s also laugh out loud funny in places. I particularly love the way in which de Kretser skewers the complacency (and bullshit) of contemporary Australian life on almost every page. Nothing escapes her barbed wit, her uncanny ability to show the preposterous nature of so many “first world problems” and the naivitey of people who don’t realise how good they have it.
For instance, in one scene, a character asks why Australians are so obsessed with food. The response goes something along the lines of “there’s nothing else of importance in the country” (I’m paraphrasing because I read an advanced proof that I’m not supposed to quote from). In another scene, a character dismisses someone for liking latte coffee when flat whites are now all the rage.
To be honest, I feel I’m going to have to read The Life to Come again because it’s so richly detailed I’m sure I’d discover things I missed first time round. It’s such a warm and wise novel, I would love to see it take home the Stella Prize, for which it has been shortlisted, when the winner is announced tomorrow (12 April).