What are you doing here? This is the question the heroine of Michelle de Kretser’s new novel asks herself. Laura Fraser comes into money and goes to see the world. She ends up in London, working first as a house-sitter and then as a travel writer: she is homeless for a living, a professional outsider. That’s one half of this novel of displaced persons. The other half concerns Ravi Mendes, a Sri Lankan who leaves his native country in fear of his life and ends up in Australia. He finds he too is being asked What are you doing here? – by those who think he can’t be a refugee because he hasn’t been behind razor wire, and those who assess his request for asylum.
London, Lisbon and Naples are seen through the eyes of an Australian, and Australia is seen through the eyes of a refugee. De Kretser’s prose is sharply defamiliarising and alert to the comic possibilities of cultural misunderstandings. Cant about ‘authenticity’ is recurrently guyed: one of Ravi’s colleagues in Sri Lanka sets up a tourism business supplying Westerners with a taste of Third World poverty. In the Australian sequence of the book, de Kretser is more interested in making fun of self-serving trendiness than rank old-style bigotry. The Other is still the Other, always misread, whether spurned or embraced.
Travel as experience; travel as flight; travel as a multimillion-dollar industry. At the novel’s halfway mark Laura finds herself working for a publisher of guidebooks, and the novel takes a turn towards workplace satire. Much of this is funny enough, but necessarily more conventional than the peregrinations of the earlier parts of the book, or indeed than Ravi’s encounters with Orstrayianness. Laura’s first name and her plainness might be there to remind us of Voss’s Laura Trevelyan, and other White heroines. There’s also a touch of White in de Kretser’s savagery and her interest in people who don’t quite belong.
Michelle de Kretser’s novels aren’t timid about showing their ruling ideas, but they are never merely programmatic: they get their unique flavour from the way they bring together cerebration and poetic sensuousness. Too much Australian writing is tight and modest in a not very alluring way, and even when de Kretser’s strategies don’t come off, you have to admire her ambition to mix modes and draw on the visionary possibilities of fiction.
This is a big, ambitious novel of Sydney and the world, globalisation and divided identities. It is everywhere full of intelligence and a vivid sense of individual lives.
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