To travel is to say goodbye. To travel is to isolate. To travel is to connect. To travel is to escape. Michelle de Kretser’s fourth novel, Questions of Travel (published in 2012 by Allen and Unwin) is aptly named, as it attempts to answer the questions and poses concepts that readers would otherwise not associate with travelling. The author herself has lived parallel to her characters, having her roots in the east and living in the west. One can see how this novel can be seen as a bipolar reflection on the author’s own experiences with travel.
The story encompasses over forty years and is told by two characters: Laura, a Sydney woman who travels the world after gaining an inheritance; and Ravi, a Sri Lankan man who becomes a tourist in his own country before seeking asylum in Sydney. We see here two parallel lives, though from opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum. David Callahan writes in Transnational Literature, that this blatant polarity is obvious in the “economic ability of [Laura] to travel out of desire, and [Ravi’s] constraints of travel structured by politicised violence” in his home country (2013, p. 6). At face value, it may appear that de Kretser is postulating that travel is only for the wealthy, however travel can come in any form: from Ravi’s journey of asylum in Australia to Laura’s cyber travelling while she works for a travel guide publishers.
These different forms of travelling are explored at great length within the novel. De Kretser pens the beginning at 1970, at the first hesitant steps of the technological boom, to 2004, when technology is an organic part of humanity – for example, as Ravi has sex with his wife, he cannot stop thinking about the internet and “things [flowing] together on his mind’s screen” (de Kretser 2012, p. 88). Deborah Rice of the ABC quotes de Kretser, who says: “Travel of different kinds is central to the book and people are interested in that…I hope they perhaps have their ideas of travel shaken up a bit or perhaps affirmed” (2014). But, while travel is the foremost theme of the novel, the author also attempts to explore technology, human interactivity and connection, politics and war, wealth and poverty, cultural relativity and race.
The title itself is based on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem by the same name, which also attempts to answer the questions of travel; questions that de Kretser also asks in her novel. Bishop writes: “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come/to imagined places, not just stay at home?…Should we have stayed at home,/wherever that may be?” (Poem Hunter 2003, para. 4-5). We meet a plethora of characters through Ravi and Laura on their travels who all have a strong relationship with the concept of home – whether they are yearning and searching for one or buried deep in the roots of the land. From Theo, who seems to be constantly misplaced, especially in himself; and Hazel, who has a deep connection with her house and her family; to Hana, an Ethiopian woman trying her best to find a home in Australia. Then there is, of course, Laura and Ravi, who both feel displaced in their home countries, for different reasons. Questions of Travel then, argues Evelyn Juers of the Sydney Review of Books, poses to us questions not only about travel but also about “authenticity: of consanguinity and camouflage, of mimesis and alterity” (2013, para. 10).
Though the book has won a number of awards and recognition – in particular, the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction – it is not however, well received by those outside the academic and literary circles. De Kretser’s use of language is the most debated and striking aspect of the novel. It is one of the leading reasons why most readers feel disconnected to the story, since it is tacit and difficult to swallow. De Kretser has a roundabout way of describing things, which can be seen quite perfectly when Ravi comments on a picture of Freda’s father (or some other relative), saying that “he filled the frame, a squared-off man. Ravi thought of good English butter. He thought of all the red roast beef the man contained” (de Kretser 2012, p.119). Just by association, we know that the man is stocky and well-built. It is a technique de Kretser uses almost constantly throughout the novel, and reading even one page is a cerebral quest – turning it into a puzzle one needs to solve before moving on in the narrative. Kim Forrester of Reading Matters, while giving the novel a positive review, admitted that she had trouble deciphering the language in some parts. She states that: “the author’s prose style…felt convoluted and “showy”…”; however, she continues on to say that once she familiarised herself with the language, it became easier to understand (Forrester 2013, para. 9).
There are, however, those who appreciate the beauty and complexity of the language. While Forrester is valid in her argument about the inaccessibility of the language in some parts of the novel, she also praises de Kretser and her mastery of description. “[The author’s] descriptions,” she says, “particularly of objects and places…were evocative and often quite beautiful” (Forrester 2013, para. 9). One can get a feel for the heady and almost drunk-like qualities of the novel, which offers a sensual mobility that parallels the book’s core theme. The book is one of fierce living (which can be seen in Laura’s character) and the inertia of death (Ravi here, serves as the metaphorical vehicle for this concept). It is hard not to find yourself breathless while reading Laura’s story, as the descriptions here are a smear of colours. Passages like: “It was lush with overgrown oranges, loquats, figs…The leaves of the orange trees were as glossy and distinct as if cut from green tin…on the station platform, surrounded by shouts, clanking, an aria oozing from the tannoy, the squeak of sneakered feet…” (de Kretser 2012, p.99). De Kretser indulges in the sensual like Laura indulges in the pleasures of living. Jenny Ackland writes on her blog that Questions “is lyrical yet compact yet wide and stuffed with detail” (2013, para. 15). Like the language, the story itself is tacit and both too macro and too micro.
Though quite beautiful, the book is not without its’ flaws. The structure of the novel was something that I had trouble grappling, as did many other readers. Randy Boyagoda of The New York Times describes the structure as a “huge game of Ping-Pong” and that de Kretser makes “too many minor plot excursions and secondary character profiles” (2013, para. 7). I did indeed have a difficult time tracking all the new characters that were being introduced in every chapter, some of whom did not appear again for the rest of the book, or were mentioned briefly five chapters later. It felt at times that these characters were pointless and only there for convenience. Names like Cassie and Phil (Laura’s roommates mentioned early in the novel) and Helmut Becker (Laura’s colleague at Ramsay’s) would only draw blank faces – these are characters who served little to no service whatsoever. It makes me wonder why de Kretser created them in the first place.
Boyagoda’s description of the chapters being like a game of Ping-Pong is also quite accurate – going from Ravi to Laura every chapter around a hundred times, with barely room to breathe, seems overwhelming and confusing at times. Boyagoda argues that this structure leaves the reader no time to reflect on “the emergence of distinctive patterns and juxtaposed meanings”, being “undermined by the sheer number and frequency of these switches” (2013, para. 7). It is perhaps too much to ask of the reader – plunging us deep into two parallel lives with stories riddled with implicit juxtaposition, only to pull us out head first before we can decipher any meaning from them.
Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel is a dizzy drunk epic. Whilst reading, I found that her language seeped into my brain chemistry, leaving me with the feeling that I had smoked too much weed in the Botanical Gardens – the colours and the Pollack descriptions is the main (if not only) reason why I admire this book. Questions did have structural flaws that were hard to overcome, and the sheer number of minor (and seemingly pointless) characters lost de Kretser many readers. The political aspects of the novel were something I, as an Australian living in a multicultural society, understood and had been exposed to before – so there wasn’t anything new from the literary shores that I had been searching for. However, the philosophy of travel presented by de Kretser caught my attention and challenged my idea of the concept. Though the novel did have its’ flaws, if it can change or impact a reader’s perception, no matter how small of an influence, it is a book worth reading.
©Yuki Iwama, 2015
Ackland, J <email@example.com> 2013, ‘Book Review: Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser’, blog post, 26 July, Seraglio: not a pizza place, viewed 18 October 2014, <http://jennyackland.wordpress.com/2013/07/26/book-review-questions-of-travel-by-michelle-de-kretser/>.
Boyagoda, R 2013, ‘When Two Paths Meet: ‘Questions of Travel,’ by Michelle de Kretser’, The New York Times, 21 June, viewed 19 October 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/books/review/questions-of-travel-by-michelle-de-kretser.html?_r=0>.
Callahan, D 2013, ‘Review of Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser’, Transnational Literature, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 6-7.
Forrester, K <firstname.lastname@example.org> 2013, “Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser’, blog post, June 18, Reading Matters: Book reviews of mainly modern and contemporary fiction, viewed 17 October 2014, <http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2013/06/questions-of-travel-by-michelle-de-krester.html>.
Juers, E 2013, Tripper Up, Tripped Out, Sydney Review of Books, 17 October 2014, <http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/tripped-up-tripped-out/>.
Poem Hunter 2003, Questions of Travel, Poem Hunter, viewed 17 October 2014, <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/questions-of-travel/>.
Rice, D 2014, ‘Michelle de Kretser’s Questions Of Travel wins Book of the Year at NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’, ABC News, 19 May, viewed 17 October 2014, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-19/michelle-de-kretser-wins-nsw-premiers-literary-award/5462540>.