A drawing a day: Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful new novel, all felicities and apercus
The drawing: Michelle de Kretser
When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.
That’s the welcome — surely a future famous first sentence — into Michelle de Kretser’s new novel, Questions of Travel.
I bought it again as a birthday gift even before I had finished it. The woman at Dymocks, seeing the author’s name: “This should be good!” “It is,” I said. “What’s it about?” she asked. “Oh, all the good stuff,” I replied airily, “travel and home, love and loss and desire, office life and redemption…” It was, of course, on the escalator when l’esprit d’escalier arrived — I should have only said: “The beauty of the world.”
Because that is what de Kretser’s dazzling language shows me, and is part of. The writing is fleet and shining with a fine story embedded within — of Laura, and of Ravi — and replete with emotional and narrative satisfactions. Which is pretty much kit and kaboodle. One speaks appreciatively of Manet’s and Bonnard’s and Matisse’s painterly qualities (French, a mindplace de Kretser understands); de Kretser’s prose is eminently writerly. But the felicities and apercus, strewn on every page, are not darlings one needs to kill but among the deepest pleasures of her book. Randomly:
“Winter must have been a shock … He said, ‘It is the winter in people’s hearts that is hard to bear.’ ” (page 97)
“One man had a coil of smoke at his feet, a grey cat…” (p 121)
“… his wife rose, crossed to the vase of orchids below the photograph of [the old couple's] dead son and set about rearranging the flowers. The old people stared as if watching the first flames reach the roof.” (p 135)
“There is no past in tourism. It’s one thing after another.” (p 141)
“People who have spent their lives in tropical places carry the memory of warmth in their bodies. It sustains them for a while, despite their cheap nylon jackets, because they are unable to believe in winter.” (p 284)
“It was the tricky Australian voice … Ravi remembered that Can I help you? meant Go away! He remembered that mate could hold a threat.” (p 287)
(Online ad copy) “There was also a duel residence — perfect for the in-laws.” (p 322)
– Ok, just one last:
(On Henry Lawson) “…. now and then, a rhyme, slotting into place, was a bolt locking up an idea.” (p 436)
Michelle de Kretser’s travel novel is about the world, and all the nooks and crannies of life beyond tourism — for instance, migration under duress is travel too, an exile into a lonely planet. At a Readings event I attended, de Kretser said she always knew the ending before she started. Finishing the book, and recalling that remark I felt a shiver.
De Kretser at Gleebooks Sydney, October 18, 6 pm, talking to Geordie Williamson. Details here.