October 2012

Arts & Letters

'Questions of Travel' by Michelle de Kretser

By Owen Richardson

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.

Owen Richardson
Owen Richardson is a Melbourne-based critic.

'Questions of Travel', Michelle de Kretser, Allen and Unwin; $39.99
Cover: October 2012

October 2012

From the front page

Image of Scott Morrison

Backing in a backflip

Thank the Wentworth by-election for this outbreak of good sense

Image of Sydney Opera House

Promo ScoMo and commodifying public space

The crass commercialism of last week’s promotion on the Opera House was a step too far

Cover of ‘The End’

‘The End’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The ‘My Struggle’ series arrives at a typically exhausting conclusion

Image from ‘Watt’

‘Watt’ at the Melbourne International Arts Festival

Beckett’s knotty novel is masterfully interpreted for stage by Barry McGovern


In This Issue

'Lore' by Cate Shortland (director)

'Silent House', Orhan Pamuk, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99

'Silent House' by Orhan Pamuk

'Montebello', Robert Drewe, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99

'Montebello' by Robert Drewe

Brett Whiteley painting Francis Bacon's portrait, London, 1984. Photograph by John Edwards. Image courtesy of Art Gallery NSW.

Anecdotes

Remembering Australian painters


More in Arts & Letters

Detail of a painting of Barron Field

Barron Field and the myth of terra nullius

How a minor poet made a major historical error

Still from Christopher Robin

A man and his bear: Marc Forster’s ‘Christopher Robin’

Adults will find this new tale of Winnie the Pooh surprisingly moving

Image of Cher in 1979

Eternally Cher

The queen of reinvention turns her attention to the works of ABBA

Image of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal


More in Noted

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer

The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is an engaging story of love and literary misadventure

Hannah Gadsby: ‘Nanette’

Believe the hype about the Tasmanian comedian’s Netflix special

Cover of A Sand Archive

‘A Sand Archive’ by Gregory Day

Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing

Cover of The Lebs

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

A fresh perspective on Muslim youth in Sydney’s west


Read on

Image of Sydney Opera House

Promo ScoMo and commodifying public space

The crass commercialism of last week’s promotion on the Opera House was a step too far

Image from ‘Watt’

‘Watt’ at the Melbourne International Arts Festival

Beckett’s knotty novel is masterfully interpreted for stage by Barry McGovern

Image of Abdul Aziz Muhamat in Lorengau

‘How are you today’ at the Ian Potter Museum of Art

Audio messages from Manus Island reveal what it sounds like to live in limbo

Image of Scott Morrison

Morrison looks the other way

Mental health is taken seriously in Australia, but not for those incarcerated on Nauru


×
×