Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2017

The Life to Come, by Michelle de Kretser

At different times in our lives, we view the life to come in different ways.  Children and adolescents often yearn for a future where they are ‘grown up’ and can act with independence and agency; young adults with a mixture of confidence and trepidation anticipate a future with adventure or a career, hoping to have or do things that they think will bring satisfaction while also expecting eventually to find a loved one with whom to share their lives.  As the years go by, the anticipated future usually becomes more peopled and expands to include the futures of partners, children and grandchildren, and then, as old age beckons, the anxieties we might have about the future begin to include worrying about the inevitable decline in health, about an adequate retirement income and about a lonely old age as friends and loved ones pass away.  What is certainly true is that life rarely turns out to be the way we expected it to be…

In The Life to Come Michelle de Kretser scrutinises this existential aspect of our lives with wit and aplomb.  Set in Sydney, Paris and briefly in Colombo, the novel traces the lives of diverse futures which intersect over the decades,  contrasting despair and disillusionment with contentment and smug satisfaction.  The author unpacks the eloquent silences that surround us to reveal the issues that we deny, suppress and ignore, exposing our flawed assumptions about other people.  And she is wickedly funny about the role of social media in our lives…

Pippa is a middle-class Australian writer who is confident that when she was famous, Sydney would be obliged to place commemorative plaques outside the houses where she had lived.  But right now she is anxiously waiting on feedback from her agent Gloria:

Pippa checked her email: an invitation from Matt’s mother to lunch on the weekend, a special offer from FragranceNet, nothing from Gloria.  Pippa retweeted @MargaretAtwood urging the donation of books to prisons. She followed every famous writer she could find on Twitter, but so far none of them had followed her back. Someone posted a photo of a dog on a skateboard. @warmstrong linked to a screening of Hotel Monterey.  ‘Chantal Akerman: wonderwoman or wanker? You decide.’  Pippa read a Lydia Davis story on the New Yorker website.  She googled to see if Lydia Davis was on Twitter.  She read a Crikey piece about arts funding, followed a few links and some time later bought a swimsuit.  Her email chimed; it was an overdue reminder from the library.  Anyway, Gloria would call, not email.  Gloria’s voice was always low and exhausted.  Of Pippa’s previous novel, she had whispered, ‘Everyone here really, really loves it.  The scene with the endives is amazing! I’ve never read anything so raw.  It really amazed everyone.  But we ran it through SIMS, our amazing new reader-response software, and it says readers are over the whole French thing. I hope you’re not expecting much in the way of an advance.’

Pippa’s phone rang and she snatched it up. But it was only a former neighbour, so she let it ring out. (p.186)

When the novel opens, Pippa’s boyfriend is George Meshaw, her tutor at university whose response to her effortful work in his tutorial on The Fictive Self was to pity her essay enough to bump up to a Credit at the last moment.  George is a writer too: his first novel is entitled Necessary Suffering (a title he pillaged from a conversation about chickens on page 15).  He’s also a refugee from Melbourne where the brainy girls wore stiff, dark clothes like the inmates of nineteenth-century institutions, with here and there an exhibitionist in grey.

De Kretser has now lived in Sydney long enough to parody the *yawn* competitive cities game, beloved of journalists in search of clickbait:

He had been back in Sydney for four years and still swam gratefully in its impersonal ease.  In Melbourne, where George had lived since he was six, he had wanted to write about modernism in Australian fiction for his PhD.  After some difficulty, a professor who would admit to having once read an Australian novel was found.  At their first meeting, she handed George a reading list made up of French and German philosophers.  When George settled down to read these texts, he discovered something astonishing: the meaning of each word was clear and the meaning of sentences baffled.  Insignificant yet crucial words like ‘however’ and ‘which’ – words whose meaning was surely beyond dispute – had been deployed in ways that made no sense. It was as unnerving as if George had seen a sunset in his east-facing window, and for a while it was as mesmeric as any disturbance to the order of things. When despair threatened, he transferred his scholarship to a university in Sydney.  There, George read novels and books about novels and was wildly happy.  He taught a couple of tutorials to supplement his scholarship. Recently, with his thesis more or less out of the way, he had begun to write a novel at night.  (p.5)

Melbourne thinks, and Sydney just gets on with it?  Hardly.  It’s that un-named ‘university in Sydney’ that gives the game away: it’s not a sandstone or a Group of Eight that’s taken in poor bewildered George and let him do a thesis so relaxed that he’s got time to write a novel too, eh?!

Pippa, who’s no intellectual, complains that she’s the only person her age with an arts degree who hasn’t read Foucault, because part-time work compromised her choices.  She feels patronised by Eva, her eventual mother-in-law – a connoisseur of Waugh and Greene who excuses herself from reading Pippa’s books.

As indeed I might too.

‘I used to try to write beautifully,’ confided Pippa, ‘But now honesty’s what I aim for in my work.’ (p.129)

It wasn’t until I came to the chapter entitled ‘Pippa Passes’ that I twigged: Pippa is a modern-day Rumer Godden (1907-1998), who wrote popular novels of the British Raj but yearned for recognition from the literati.  Godden’s novel Pippa Passes (1994) is a deceptively sentimental coming-of-age novel where a naïvely ambitious young woman learns a hard lesson, becoming older and wiser in the process.

The Life to Come repays close reading, and the author takes no prisoners.  She expects her readers to keep up, and to be conversant with art, music, global politics and history, as well as literature, of course.  And that’s not all: there’s a droll sequence where Cassie seeks to impress Ash (Ashoka) from Sri Lanka with her labour-intensive ‘ethnic’ feast (which he concludes is another kind of displacement scheme elaborated to avoid working on her thesis).  She buys from ‘the Ashfield Tamil’ (who, tellingly never has a name) some ‘muthu sambu’ rice which turns out to have a stench that had been born in a sewer:

Ash took the lid from Cassie’s lifeless fingers and replaced it on the pot.  He opened windows. The gale had died down to a stiff breeze.  Cold air filled the room, spreading rather than dispatching the reek.  One of the candles succumbed to the draught.

Does muthu sambu rice always smell like that?’ asked Cassie.  She sat down – as if an invisible intruder had whacked her behind the knees.

‘How should I know?’ Ash added, ‘I doubt it.’ (p.73)

Ash, whose parents migrated to Australia in the 1970s would have to Google for the answer as I did.  This theme of Australians making assumptions about migrants and refugees has cropped up in De Kretser’s wry fiction before, and she has fun inverting it when Pippa goes to Paris and meets up with Céleste, a translator who’s having an affair with Sabine, married with children and every bit as diffident about her lover as the stereotypical man having a ‘bit on the side’.  Céleste, who’s from Perth, enjoys living in a poky apartment doing work that she loves, and yearns to be a ‘real’ Françoise.  She resents Pippa blundering around expecting everyone to be nice because she’s Australian…

But Céleste is no fool.  There are intellectual and social gulfs between her and Sabine, and whereas Sabine expresses her opinions thoughtlessly (and not just on the topic of French-Algerian history) Céleste prudently keeps her more sensitive rebuttals to herself).  Their relationship has to be squeezed into le cinq à sept (the hours between five and seven, when Sabine’s husband Bernard thinks she’s having an English lesson) so there was no time for sex and talk.  A great deal went unsaid. But Céleste knows that she’ll be sacrificed for Sabine’s children, and beside her sleeping lover on a rare night together, she thinks of the empty frightening years ahead.  In the last poignant chapter the reader sees just what this can mean for Bunty and Christobel, while Pippa blunders on, blithe and insouciant except in her innermost thoughts which she is quick to banish.

There is so much more to this splendid novel but – just for fun – I’ll end with this delicious excerpt from a scene where Céleste is teaching the teenage Djamila English using those inane Facebook quizzes that litter our daily feeds:

Céleste and Djamila were determining whether Céleste was a Healer, an Analyst, an Adventurer or a Commander.  Djamila read out:’ “Which statement describes you best? (a) People say you are inflexible; (b) You are happy being the centre of attention; (c) Your home environment is very tidy.” ‘ As Céleste hesitated, ‘The answer is (a),’ said Djamila. ‘C’est évident.’  (p. 168)

Oh… ouch!

Author: Michelle de Kretser
Title: The Life to Come
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN: 9781760296568
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: The Life to Come


Responses

  1. I’m not going to read your review in full until I’ve read the book myself. Allen & Unwin U.K. kindly sent me a review copy a few weeks ago. It’s not due for publication in the U.K. until next year.

    • I’ll never understand why in the digital age they have all these different publication dates. The only thing I can think of is eligibility for prizes.
      Tell you what, the Miles Franklin will be a tough gig next year: as well as this one other contenders will be the new ones from Alec Patric (I’m reading it now), Roger McDonald, Richard Flanagan (both on the TBR) and also Alex Miller, I think. And yes, there will be howls of protest because with the exception of de Kretser these writers at the top of their game are all male.
      #Musing, I think we’re well overdue for a new one from Andrea Goldsmith but I haven’t heard anything.
      PS I know Andrea is working on a new one because I read it on her blog. It’s called The Science of Departures, see https://andreagoldsmith.com.au/2016/09/14/letters-again/)

  2. And a brilliant novel from Robert Drewe.

    • Yes, Whipbird, I forgot! I’ve got that one too:) *happy wail* How am I ever going to read them all in a timely manner?!

  3. I saw this one coming out next year here and I’ve been thinking about putting it on the TBR

  4. Like kimbofo, I’ll read this later. I was all set to go to an author talk by de Kretser on Monday week, and then discovered I had a clash. Wah! I’d love to have see her in person. Such a thoughtful person.

  5. I’m booked in to see her next week – and to collect the copy of the book that I’ve paid for, not this one I’ve reviewed which was sent to me by the publisher. I’ll keep the pristine copy for my prize winners shelf, when it wins the prizes it is destined to win!

  6. I’m pleased to see from Kim’s comment that this one is going to be published in the UK. I enjoy flitting around the literary world via blogs but it can be a little frustrating if, like me, you’ve sworn off Amazon and therefore Kindle!

  7. I read Foucault in my truck while doing a degree part-time. But working out what it meant, and retaining it when I did, was mostly beyond me.

    • Ha! I consider myself lucky to have done my degrees before Foucault and the isms. All we did in English was to read from16th century plays and poetry through to modernism. It was heaven.

    • PS Can you get Foucault on audio? Wonders will never cease…

      • I just googled Foucault and audio book. I think I’d start with the VSI.

        • Uh, thank you, but no. No one has yet persuaded me that reading Mr F would make me happy…

  8. […] I said in my review of The Life to Come,  De Kretser expects her readers to pay attention, and at this event she explained that she is […]

  9. […] and Rage; Kim Scott’s Taboo; Alec Patric’s Atlantic Black; Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come; and on my TBR jostling for first position are:  Richard Flanagan’s First Person; Alex […]


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