‘Away is hard to go, but no one/Asked me to stay.’
This is a great novel! It is one of my favourite books of recent years. It is structured on the parallel stories of Laura and Ravi; she eventually leaving Australia as a traveller, and he coming as a refugee from the horrors of the Sri Lankan Civil War. It is a brooding and compelling investigation, a process of genuine inquiry; an enacting of the disjointed, nonlinear travel experience. ‘Questions of Travel’ features tremendous generosity of material, depth of cultural context, powerful use of rhetorical devices, crystalline descriptions, a cavernous subtext, and a raft of observations and epigrams from the scarily sharp intellect of de Kretser, in her role as a social commentator.
‘She kept her eyes from his heartbreaking maroon jumper with the too-long sleeves. ‘Winter must have been a shock.’People were leaving the kitchen. He held out his hand for her cup and binned it along with his. He said, ‘It is the winter in people’s hearts that is hard to bear.’
De Kretser’s narrative embodies themes such as the experience of Travel, the Construction of Identity, multiple experiences of Time, the Impact of Civil War, perceptions of Body Image, narratives of memory and the mundane nature of office politics. As she explores these ideas, her writing also turns on a pin to record the ordinariness of day to day life in intimate detail, miring her characters in the mistakes, misfortunes and serendipitous moments of existence. The narrative voice has a cool, detached tone, somewhat similar to the voice in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin.’ Her social sensitivity and acuteness of observation are reminiscent of the clear eyed look at violence of Joseph Conrad’s political masterpiece ‘Nostromo,’ and Michael Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan Civil War account ‘Anil’s Ghost’, two other masterpieces of the devastation of War, Greed and Revolution.
‘Somewhere along this stretch of highway, dozens of students suspected of involvement in the first insurgency had been brought at night, stood at the side of the precipitous road and shot…These things-the bodies crumbling backwards in the dark, the reek-entered the child Ravi’s repertoire of horror, where they occupied a vivid niche.’
This is not a novel with wide open, welcoming arms into an engaging hero’s quest. It is highly confronting in its depiction of acts of violence; Laura and Ravi have to deal with several unlovely characters. There is a stimulating tension between the bleakness of de Kretser’s broader political vision, and the magnificence of simple connections between people who live in close connection to each other and their urban or rural surroundings.
‘Who can explain the sympathy that runs swift as a hound and as stubbornly between people and places? It involves memory, prejudice, accidents of weather.’
This novel is unapologetically serious literature, whose value and rewards may take repeated readings to fully appreciate, as it did for me. The study notes I have posted elsewhere on this blog are a tribute to the complexity and depth of this novel. I am an unabashed enthusiast for this magnificent work, and urge readers to give this Miles Franklin winner the sustained attention it needs and deserves, in exchange for the rewards it will deliver.
‘But tourism existed to postpone such questions. It was the first day of Laura’s holiday, the country unknown, the morning pure potential. Rising to meet it, she was conscious of joy. The magic land existed. It had to – hadn’t Laura always known it? She would find it yet: in the depths of a wardrobe, at the top of a faraway tree.’