Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 24, 2013

Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser


2013 Miles Franklin

2013 Miles Franklin Award

Questions of TravelIt’s taken me a while to read Questions of Travel – it’s one of those books that demands time and concentration.   However it’s been a worthwhile investment; it’s an interesting, thought-provoking novel.  It explores travel and tourism; work and leisure; and all the messiness of modern life, but it’s much richer than that. Almost every page triggers thought about all kinds of things, and the prose is a pleasure to read.

De Kretser explores the modern phenomenon of travel in all its complexity and contradictions:  travel for pleasure, or for work; for migration, or for asylum.   I am old enough to remember the first jumbo jet airliner arriving in Melbourne:  little realising that we were witnessing the birth of the Age of Travel, we went outside with the Kodak camera to photograph it.   Since then international travel has become mainstream and tourism is a major money-spinner in most economies around the world.

De Kretser is interested in travel to escape.  Two characters absorb our attention.  There is Laura, not very attractive, resented by her sole surviving sibling, doing what many Aussies do, travelling the world to escape the ordinariness of her life, in search of a culture that she feels is missing from her homeland.  And then there is Ravi the IT professional from Sri Lanka, who tugs at the reader’s heart-strings as Laura does not.  He has suffered appalling trauma in his homeland and must escape it for his own safety.  Both these characters have adjustments to make and both find that painful aspects of their old lives travel with them, wherever they go.

For Laura, with money in her pocket and an Aussie passport, travel is easy, and she can move freely in the places she visits.  But Ravi must submit to more than indignity to acquire the tourist visa that he needs to make a quick entry into Australia.  When he gets there and applies for asylum there is a long and complex legal process ahead, and he puzzles his colleagues because they associate the label ‘refugee’ with detention centres.

Laura ends up working in what looks at first glance like a ‘dream job’ for someone with the travel bug: the Ramsay travel guide company is a rival to Lonely Planet.  De Kretser has a lot of fun mocking Ramsay’s corporate management and the shallowness of the work environment, its phony ‘non-hierarchical’ structure and its highly selective commitment to bringing the traveller to places ‘off the beaten track’.

Throughout the book there are cleverly constructed incidents of barbed humour.  Ravi, floundering in a new culture, is told at work that he should contribute ideas of his own for Ramsey’s website, and makes a cautious suggestion.  By now he has ventured further into Sydney and discovered the western suburbs:

… Ravi examined the west of Sydney with an eye tutored by the luxuriance of other quarters.  He saw that the hills flattened  out there and potholes appeared.  Even the climate was distinctive: the west was breezeless and hot – the promise of the sea had been withdrawn.  In compensation, showrooms grew larger.  They lured with novel galaxies: Sleep World, Carpet World.  The suburbs streamed towards the mountains bearing a cargo of saris, pho, Korean pickles, Iranian raisins, taxation advice in Mandarin, wines from Portugal, headscarved grandmothers, the purple flesh of ritually slaughtered goats.  Thus the known world conspired to offer a reprieve from Australia.  Ravi might have been back at Hungry Jack’s at Central.  In the west, too, people came from everywhere to consume, snatch a bargain, sink into dreams.  They pushed strollers before them, trundling their vigorous, greedy, Australian children into the future.

Ravi consulted the Ramsay guide to Sydney.  Surf, museums, sandstone passed in review. He flipped to the section called ‘Secret Sydney’.  It provided directions to a nudist beach, a street of polychrome-brick mansions, a gay cabaret, a cafe that never closed.  When Nadine called for ideas at the next e-zone meeting, Ravi spoke up.  He had noticed, he said, that the guide to Sydney made no mention of the city’s west.  Why not feature this neglected region on the web?  It was – he brought out the Ramsay idiom with nonchalant pride – off the beaten track.  (p. 399)

While both characters are conflicted, Ravi’s dilemmas are more engaging and he is a more attractive character.  Laura’s quest is for the love and acceptance denied to her by her spectacularly awful family but she seems too shallow and self-absorbed to evoke much sympathy.  Ravi, on the other hand, can’t help but engage the reader’s empathy.  He’s caught between wanting to be back in Sri Lanka where he feels a sense of belonging, and needing to feel safe.  His halting steps towards a new relationship are sabotaged by his enduring sense of loyalty to Malina, his wife.  The poignant sequence where he wants to tell his Ethiopian friend Hana of his fledgling feelings for her, but instead gets bogged down in a discussion about the comparative merits of Macs versus PC, is another reminder that refugees like him are in our midst without the trauma counselling that they need.

The story is compartmentalised into chapters about Laura and chapters about Ravi, and for most of the book their paths don’t cross at all.  Some readers, perhaps, will anticipate a romance but their eventual meeting is not like that at all.  These characters are there to represent the discontents and follies of privilege versus the tragedy of having the wrong sort of passport, but the author is not interested in moralising and the final chapter is a painful reminder that ‘safety’ can be a matter of luck.

Incongruities revealed by cunning juxtapositions give pause for thought on almost every page, reminding me of Patrick White and Henry James.  (This is why it takes so long to read).  Laura is summoned to the luxe family home by ‘the threat of Christmas‘ (p. 402); if her brother’s latest girlfriend ‘outlasts the year it would only be by hours‘ (p. 404); her father’s trophy wife‘s ‘eyes were smaller than her rings’ (p. 405).  Laura declines to give to a beggar child because she laughed and ‘happiness is not a beggarly attribute’ (p. 185). The child is wearing a faded T-shirt labelled ‘Intel inside’.

This is an infinitely better book than The Lost Dog.  Highly recommended.

Rebecca Starford reviewed it for the SMH, and James Tierney reviewed it too.

Author: Michelle de Kretser
Title: Questions of Travel
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781743311783
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.95

Availability

Fishpond: Questions of Travel


Responses

  1. An infinitely better book that The Lost Dog!

    *adds to mental TBR list*

  2. Oh, glad you liked it Lisa … I think de Kretser is an interesting writer. I love how she tries different “things” (says she using her best literary language).

    • *chuckle* I like the way the issues she’s raised in my mind are lingering there, books that do that are always top of my list.

      • Absolutely … It’s interesting how some books do that .. How they just reside there in your consciousness.

  3. I really didn’t care for The Lost Dog and had more or less written off de Kretser as an author.

    As I read through your review, I had just about decided to give her another chance – and then your final statement “This is an infinitely better book than The Lost Dog” clinched it for me.

    I’m adding this to my TBR wish list. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Deb, Sue, I know exactly what you mean: I hesitated about buying it – $32.95 and what if I disliked it as much as I disliked the other one? But I loved The Hamilton Case and was enchanted by The Rose Grower, and in the end I bought it and I’m really glad I did. There’s none of that puzzling pseudo-edgy *ugh* preoccupation with human waste, but more importantly that sledgehammer symbolism has (almost entirely) gone and the incongruous juxtapositions are clever and relevant rather than forced.
    And (even though it’s not the most important thing about a book) I engaged with the characters, wanting a better life for them and needing to read on to find out how their author was going to resolve things.

  5. Hello Lisa,

    Good to see your review of ‘Questions of Travel’. I’ve forwarded it to my friend, Maureen Cashman, who writes travel pieces for the Australian and Sydney Morning Herald.

    • Hi Dorothy, I think she’ll find it interesting. Some of the events in the novel reminded me of media stories about the Lonely Planet during the post 9/11 tourism downturn, but in the novel ‘Ramsay’ is a rival to Lonely Planet.
      It certainly puts paid to the idea of travel guide writers being free spirited backpackers roaming the planet. I should have known that, of course. A company like Lonely Planet couldn’t possibly be so successful if it didn’t have a ‘corporate ethos’ LOL.

  6. Well, exactly. Do you think the phrase ‘corporate community’ is an oxymoron?

  7. Oh dear, I seem to have got in a muddle with my identity here – it all comes of trying to use Gravatar!

    Dorothy

  8. A lovely review, Lisa.
    It made me reconsider my reading of this, a novel I hope to re-read someday.

    • Thank you, James, I enjoyed your review too:)

  9. […] easy to read because the reader is always in danger of missing something significant.” ANZ Litlovers says it is “one of those books that demand time and concentration.” I agree with both reviewers […]

  10. Nice review, Lisa! I like the way the book describes two contrasting worlds with a travel backdrop. After I read your review, I looked at the word ‘travel’ in new light. I will keep an eye for this book. Thanks for this beautiful review!

    • One of the things I really like about it, Vishy, is that it is so relevant to the lives of so many Australians. We are a nation of immigrants, and increasingly the people who come to live here have had harrowing experiences that those born here just don’t comprehend. I don’t mean that the book lectures, because it doesn’t, but it does reveal a part of Australian lives that more of us need to engage with.

      • Interesting to know that, Lisa. After I read the passage in your review which described Ravi discovering the western part of Sydney and recommending it for inclusion in the travel guide, I wondered what happened next. It is nice to know that the book doesn’t lecture, but shows things as they are. I will add this to my ‘TBR’ list and keep an eye for it. Thanks to you, I discovered a wonderful new book and writer.

  11. […] For an equally positive perspective, check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) excellent review. […]

  12. This is a great review Lisa. You get to the nub so succinctly. I feel differently about Laura, though. I agree that Ravi’s situation is more tragic, but I found Laura equally interesting/engaging. But, such a delicious read. I loved the little details — remember the challenge of opening aerogrammes? I loved how she slipped in things like that.

    • Thank you, Sue, but I loved your review too. That’s the thing about a great book like this one, it is so scrumptiously rich that readers will find all kinds of interesting perspectives.
      Yes indeed, I do remember aerogrammes, and on my last visit to my elderly parents in Qld was stunned to find them on their shopping list and that you can still buy them at the post office! My father (now in his late 80s) is a great correspondent, and he still uses them regularly.

      • Can you really? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. How many of us wrote weekly aerogrammes back home when we travelled! My kids wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

        That’s great about your father. My parents are pretty good correspondents too, but are finding they have fewer and fewer people to write to. People have either died or don’t have the eyesight. Mum now uses email for the grandchildren so letters are more for older people!

        • I love getting my father’s letters. He tells me all about the books he’s been reading!

          • Getting letters is lovely isn’t it. I write weekly to a friend in the US (and in fact am writing one now in between checking emails etc!). My husband can’t understand why we don’t email but it’s not the same. You craft a letter quite differently. We always mention the books we’re reading and films we’ve seen – as well as chat about the kids, work/friends etc.

            • Absolutely. But I suspect it is a dying craft. Whatever will people use to write biographies in future, I wonder…

  13. I’m about halfway through this book and stopped by here because I remembered you liking it. I’ve been wondering why it’s taking me a while to read this one, and now that I’ve read this review I realize I’ve unconsciously been savoring it, as one should. I skimmed the second part of your review (after the long blockquote) because I don’t want to interfere with my “savoring”!

    • I’m delighted to hear this, Laura, because it means the book is now starting to make its splash internationally:)

  14. I am going to be a dissenting voice here, this is a huge disappointment of a book. Now I agree with many here, the prose is lovely (in places), the story, mainly Ravi’s is worth telling and I am sure the author had good intentions and is a lovely person but..

    The prose is bad because it is overblown, sentimental and clichéd. Additionally there is too much of it. This is a long book, too long. It is boring.

    The structure used by the author is very common and is used by many other authors to convey narratives that stretch over long periods of time. This structure is a bit clichéd in of itself and the way it is used here exemplifies that. Really this novel reads like two short dull novels that have been merged to produce one long dull novel. The result is that it is impossible to really connect with the characters and ultimately that disconnected me from the ideology of the text. The prose is so overblown, long and dull that I resisted the text, the author broke the reader contract and then I was unable to accept the conventions or authority of the text.

    This novel has been richly awarded I know. I can only guess at the literary politics that lead to such awards. Log Rolling and Back Scratching I suspect. Sadly this fact alone will isolate future really worthwhile novels from potential audiences. This is a grave disservice done by the award organisations and by the author herself. Very sad.

    Because this novel is so bad it does the Australian Literary industry and the publishing industry no favours and isn’t it struggling already? People may pick this up thinking it will be worthwhile and then be infuriated by the novel itself and that will taint all products awarded and labelled literary. My copy has had a couple of trips across the room. I only completed it because I was externally compelled to do so.

    If you must read this novel, borrow a copy or buy it soon at a discount bin or second hand.

    Harry

    • Oh dear, Harry, thank you for your comment but I can’t agree with you at all! As one who is independent of any literary politics – and who did not like her previous book at all and wasn’t afraid to say so – I think Questions of Travel was a lovely book with much to think about and exquisitely written.
      Of course you are probably right that some will reject it. Readers of popular fiction rarely like books of rich complexity and style, but the Miles Franklin is supposed to be an award for literary fiction.
      I hope you enjoy your next book more! *smile*
      Lisa

  15. […] appearance belies a rich and sometimes tragic inner life.  Like Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, The Passenger has a gentle purpose, a reminder to those who host immigrants and refugees, that […]

  16. […] PPS Of course I bought her next book.  And I loved it.  See my review of Questions of Travel here. […]


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