‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle De Kretser

2012, 515 p.

SPOILER ALERT

I come to this book nine years after it was published. It comes garlanded with prizes: The 2013 Miles Franklin; the Prime Ministers Literary Award, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and shortlisted for the inaugural Stella Prize. How does it stand up, almost a decade later?

It is a long book at just over 500 pages, and I was reading it under pressure for a looming book group meeting. Five hundred pages is a hefty tome, but if you asked me to summarize the book, it really comes down to two rather simple stories.

Australian Laura Fraser is the large, ungainly daughter in a wealthy family, who spends much of her early adulthood travelling abroad. Tiring of travel, she returns to Australia and begins working Ramsay Publishing, a travel guide publishing company in competition with Lonely Planet, while renting small rooms on the upper storeys of an old ramshackle Harbourside house, owned by an elderly man with a large, untidy collection of paintings by deceased artist, Hugo Drummond. She is largely rootless: she owns no property, and has a strings of affairs with unavailable, married men, dalliances with older men and infatuations with gay men.

In the other story, Sri Lankan Ravi emigrates to Australia as a refugee after his wife and son are found murdered in mysterious circumstances that hint of official and police involvement and cover up. Although, as a Sinhalese Ravi was not in political danger, as he might have been had he been Tamil, his wife had been a Human Rights activist. Shifting from house to house, and disguising himself as a tourist in Colombo, one of his wife’s activist friends arranges for him to fly to Australia on a tourist visa, with a view to seeking asylum after arrival, hence avoiding the detention scheme for refugees who arrived by boat. He is a rather passive and ambivalent refugee, confounding our easy assumptions about ‘real’ asylum seekers.

The book follows the trajectory of these two main characters from the 1960s through to 2004. The narrative is often quotidian yet detailed, and there were many times when I wondered where (if anywhere) this book was going. The descriptions are so clear that you can almost see them in your mind’s eye, even though I had not been to many of the places described. They combine everyday, unexceptional life with large, explosive world events that occur off-stage – the death of Princess Diana, 9/11 etc. Big events occur, completely without warning or emphasis, and you find yourself re-reading to make sure that what you thought happened, actually did. As a reader, you develop a warmth towards this large, essentially aimless girl, and this man, traumatized by the deaths of his wife and child who somehow seemed more loveable to him once they had died. The book plaits the two stories, one over the other, and any expectation that somehow they are going to merge in some large plot development is disappointed. The action that moves the book forward is everyday and largely inconsequential, within a framework of larger, international events. Both Laura and Ravi are rootless, even though they are both drawn ‘home’.

This pointillist, rather aimless structure plays out de Kretser’s larger argument about “the question of travel”. As her character Laura observes, much of travel involves just hanging around, doing nothing, waiting for the next thing – just like in this book. Laura works at a ‘travel’ book publishing company, priding itself on supporting ‘travel’ rather than the more grubby, commercial ‘tourism’ – but where does the difference lie? Is it ever possible to have an ‘authentic’ travel experience, or does authenticity lie in the everyday and banal? How has the internet, the development of which she traces in this book, changed the nature of travel when experiences can be rendered digitally? And what of those who choose to travel, as distinct from those who are forced to travel?

I don’t really know what to think about this book. At over 500 pages, it was very long and much of the book consists of rather banal detail. Events land unexpectedly, just as in real life. Some change the whole trajectory of the book; others are absorbed into the flow. I found myself thinking of the book as a type of mosaic. Each little tile by itself is inconsequential, and yet the connection of each little tile contributes to a bigger picture. I suspect that the details of this book have wormed themselves into my consciousness far more than I realize, and that my appreciation of the book will grow, rather than diminish, over time. It is beautifully and intelligently written, and you could choose any page at random and find a sentence that captures an image with crystal clarity or skewers an observation with a spiky, mordant wit. Just like when travelling, much of it was boring and inconsequential. And, much like when travelling, the experience of reading afforded by this book creates something much bigger than its parts.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup. My bookgroup was divided in its opinion.

I have included this on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

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