I haven’t read any of de Kretser’s other work, which includes the Booker longlisted The Lost Dog, from 2007. But when here new book arrived at our store a few months ago, the blurb caught my eye, and I gave it a go. I’m glad this worked out, because – and I don’t want to call it too early – but I think we’re definitely looking at a potential 2013 Miles Franklin winner here.
Unsatisfied by her small life in Sydney, Laura decides to travel to Europe, to find herself. Almost accidentally, she loses herself in the art of travelling, and ends up living in London. Meanwhile, Ravi, a young man from Sri Lanka, falls in love with a girl, and almost immediately after, has a son with her. To feed his young family, Ravi starts designing websites for universities in Sri Lanka, and becomes mildly successful at it. But both Laura and Ravi will be rocked by life-changing events that will force them to question how they live, where they live, and if there’s a future for them.
So what are the eponymous questions of travel? There are a few de Kretser wants us to think about: who travels; where do they go; why do they go there; how does this travel affect you?
There is an inherent danger, I think, in writing a novel with competing narratives. There is always a chance that one will gradually become more interesting, or more engaging, or more thought-provoking. And because I’m a terrible person, I try and pick it. The good thing about Questions of Travel is that there is no bad half. Both narratives compete for your love, and while each ebbs and flows, neither ever feels like it’s dragging, or stretching to make a point about the other.
And the two really do compliment one another. Laura starts travelling much earlier – like all good recently-graduated Australian uni students, she flies the coop to Europe, in the hope of finding herself in what is ostensibly her family history. It’s not an uncommon trope, but de Kretser handles it with care. I like that Laura ends up working for a travel guide company – it’s what we all want to do, but Laura manages to do it.
Her travelling time, though, does eventually come to an end, and like all good birds, she eventually comes home. Tired of travel, wanting to put down some roots, she finds a place to live, with an elderly Greek gentleman. Still finding her family unbearable, she settles down and makes friends with her workmates. Of course, as we move out of the 70s, and into the 80s and 90s, where stupid boardroom talk becomes the norm, and people become more and more obsessed with making money and profit margins and ways to increase productivity, her office life becomes instantly recognisable, and though mundane, it is the new journey she must take.
As Laura travels the real world, Ravi travels the imagined. Connected to the world by the internet, he finds solace and escape from the banality of his own life in things far away he can access from the comfort of his own home. I like that, finally, there is a good novel that deals with the way the internet has shaped so much of our culture over the past twenty years. As a Gen Yer, I cannot begin to imagine a life without the internet, so it’s nice to see someone in fiction deal with the coming of the computer revolution, and how that opened up possibilities previously unimaginable.
Sadly for Ravi, his need to travel rapidly becomes more real. Forced to flee Sri Lanka, he arrives in Sydney with little knowledge of what he has to do to survive. Though I can’t imagine the overlap between refugee haters and de Kretser readers is huge, it’s nice to see someone dealing with what it meant to be a refugee in Howard-era Australia, and providing a sympathetic viewpoint. It’s clearly an arduous journey – even for someone like Ravi who has had the chance to sort out his papers before arriving in the country. By plane, for anyone who’s wondering. Moved to a foreign country not by choice, his journey is very different to Laura’s, and it provides a moving counterpoint.
Surprisingly, for a novel largely set before the present day, Questions of Travel is a deeply modern novel in its sensibilities. It is asking questions of us that focus on how, in such a deeply interconnected global society, we interact as humans. It is so much easier for us to go to Europe, say, than it was even 30 years ago. That has to have an effect on global culture (whatever that is) – though de Kretser doesn’t have any definitive answers. With Ravi’s eventual return to Sri Lanka – despite finally receiving refugee status – perhaps we are to think that home is where the heart is, no matter how hard that is. But then Laura doesn’t feel at home in Sydney, nor London, nor Naples. She seems destined to wander the globe, looking for answers.
Like all of us, really.