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

No news is bad news

Australia’s free press is on life support

Image of Robyn Davidson

Something mythic

For Robyn Davidson, her acclaimed memoir ‘Tracks’ was an act of freedom whose reception hemmed her in

COVID-19 versus human rights

The virus is the latest excuse for governments to slash and burn the individual rights of prisoners

Image of Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Road map to nowhere

Angus Taylor’s road map is anything but an emissions reduction strategy


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

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

Still from ‘The Assistant’

Her too: ‘The Assistant’

Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture

Photograph of Dua Lipa

Snap-back: Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

The British singer’s serendipitous album delivers shining pop with a reigning attitude of fortitude

Still from ‘The Platform’

Consolations in isolation: ‘The Platform’ and ‘Free in Deed’

What is the future of cinema without cinemas?


More in Noted

Cover of ‘The Trials of Portnoy’

‘The Trials of Portnoy’ by Patrick Mullins

The finely detailed story of the legal fight in Australia against the censorship of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

Cover of ‘The End of October’

‘The End of October’ by Lawrence Wright

A ‘New Yorker’ journalist’s eerily prescient novel about public-health officials fighting a runaway pandemic

Cover of ‘Fathoms’

‘Fathoms: The World in the Whale’ by Rebecca Giggs

The Australian writer’s lyrical consideration of our relationship with whales is a new and ambitious kind of nature writing

Cover of ‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’

‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ by Cho Nam-Joo (trans. Jamie Chang)

The coldly brilliant, bestselling South Korean novel describing the ambient harassment and discrimination experienced by women globally


Read on

Image of Robyn Davidson

Something mythic

For Robyn Davidson, her acclaimed memoir ‘Tracks’ was an act of freedom whose reception hemmed her in

COVID-19 versus human rights

The virus is the latest excuse for governments to slash and burn the individual rights of prisoners

Image of Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Road map to nowhere

Angus Taylor’s road map is anything but an emissions reduction strategy

Into the slippery unknown: ‘The Gospel of the Eels’

Patrik Svensson’s eloquent debut is a hymn to the elusiveness of eels and an ode to family


×
×