Review: Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

Why do we travel? What is travel? Is it tourism or migration; voluntary or necessary? Something driven by restlessness, curiosity, a desire to learn and see new things or the need to escape?

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel tells the stories of two very different people: Laura, an Australian woman for whom travel has been an essential part of her life in many different ways; and Ravi, a Sri Lankan man who arrives in Australia as an asylum seeker after experiencing devastating events in his home country. De Kretser quotes a fragment of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘Questions of Travel’ , as a preface to her novel and, through the lives of Laura and Ravi, she explores many of the same questions. But  for both Laura and Ravi, Elizabeth Bishop’s final question – “Should we have stayed at home / Wherever that may be?” – is left unanswered.

Laura, inheriting money from an aunt who has filled her childhood with stories of far-off places, begins her travels in a very Australian way. In the 1980s, she drops out of art-school and sets off with her back-pack to Bali. It is part of de Kretser’s skill that in just a few lines she can convey the common experience of  first-time travelers. For Laura, the marvel that “This is Asia and I am in it” is accompanied by familiar Australian voices in the streets and bars, yet “It was nothing like home”. Her experiences in Bali, too, are common, including her rapid attachment to the local family in whose home she stays and her resolve (never kept) to keep in touch with them.

From Bali, Laura travels through India and then to London, where she finds that every bridge embodies a sonnet, every monument is iconic, and everything is familiar. “That is what it means to be Australian”, she concludes, “You come to London for the first time and discover what you already know”. She rents  cheap rooms, learns local customs, gets homesick on hearing an Australian voice in a crowd, and, “armed with a railway pass”, she explores Europe. By the 1990s, she is back in London working as a waitress, then as a house-sitter. She makes friends and then takes over a friend’s flat in Naples and lives there long enough to come to love it. For a while, work as a travel-writer keeps her on the move to many and varied places but, in 2000, she returns to Sydney and takes a job with the publishers of popular travel-guides.

Meanwhile, in interwoven chapters, we follow Ravi’s life in Sri Lanka. We meet his family, his friends, his wife and his small son. We learn of his wife’s work as a civil rights activist, and of the civil strife and atrocities which she reports. Michelle de Kretser lives in Sydney but she grew up in Sri Lanka and she conveys the culture, the delights and the tensions of that country simply, vividly and with great skill. So, too, does she convey Ravi’s encounters with Australian culture and Australians whilst, from 2000 to 2004, he lives the uncertain life of an asylum seeker in Sydney: the  casual rudeness of Sydneysiders (“Geddout the fuckin way, mate”, from a jogger on a headland path); the generosity; the beauty of the place and the unfamiliar Australian passion for nature (“he got through bushwalking by looking forward to lunch”); the inter-State rivalries (“If you live more than thirty-minutes from the beach you might as well live in Melbourne”); and Ravi’s amazement at the valuable things people throw out as garbage.

Ravi works first as an assistant in an aged-care home, then as an IT specialist at the same travel-guide publishing firm as Laura. Ravi and Laura do meet, but their lives are never close. Laura’s many different relationships, friends and lovers are a natural and important part of her story. Ravi’s encounters with Australian families, friends, neighbours and fellow workers are less close but equally absorbing. For both, the question  “Why am I here?” crops up occasionally. For both, ‘home’ has different and often changing meanings.

Questions of Travel is a beautifully produced book and it comes wreathed in praise from writers such as Hilary Mantel and A.S. Byatt, and from reviewers for the USA’sNew Statesman, the Australian Sydney Morning Herald and the UK’s Sunday Times. Not all the praise is for Questions of Travel but all attests to de Kretser’s skill as an imaginative and accomplished writer of evocative prose which brings her characters to life and is full of suspense and psychological depth. I agree with all of this. Her ability to covey a vivid image in just a few words is enviable. I enjoyed Ravi’s suburban vision of “novel galaxies”  “Sleep World, Carpet World”; the familiarity of Laura’s office environment “where only Windows opened” and “Twenty-three emails replying to the email about gym membership” have been copied to her; and her description (as a Sydenysider used to pounding surf) of the “mincing sea where Shelley drowned” in La Spezia in Italy. Occasionally de Kretser’s images were so novel that they left me flummoxed. I have no idea what a gargoyle wearing “a cockroach veil” after a Sydney rainstorm looks like, but the “broken bodies of Umbrellas” exactly describes what I saw, not in Sydney as Laura did but in windswept Amsterdam.

Altogether, I found Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel to be an enjoyable, absorbing, well-written and thought-provoking book.

Buy the book here…

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