Guest reviewer, James Waite Morgan , ex-pastoralist and novelist : Parakeet, Loving Helen, The Artist’s Wife, Fat of the Land — is the biographer of his grandparents, S.A. men in The Premier and the Pastoralist.
Ageing is not a pretty thing. As a constant reader, it’s depressing to stare the inevitable end in the face and be confronted with award-winning works that cast no light upon the present state of the nation or the meaning of things but take cover in the exploitation of portentous past events (or trivia) — leading maybe somewhere but not in my opinion towards ‘presenting Australian Life in any of its phases’ — as the Miles Franklin Literary Award criteria has it — in such a way that the reader is taken by the throat and shaken … awake, if such is required.
Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel covers the ground of the present splendidly — mining our political and personal dilemmas, how to handle responsibly the question of not just personal travel made possible by our high Australian dollar and the baby boomers’ increasing life span but that of the asylum seekers knocking at our door looking for a better life and political safety.
I read the book once in a daze of literary engagement with the main characters, Laura and Ravi, both so likeable yet so different, and at the end was left bemused as to what did I think, so read it again, defining chunks of flawless prose with the generous bookmark ribbon (only in the hardback edition, ed.).
I have just read the first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical series Min Kamp and am awestruck by the power of his writing and the exacting account of his life. Book 2: A Man in Love could use a bookmark. Where Geoff Dyer in Paris Trance tells you perhaps more than you want to know about the detail of his characters’ sex life, de Kretser gives us just enough in the lives of her two main characters, Laura and Ravi, each to their own.
De Kretser constructs a many-splendoured thing, perhaps with some reference to diaries and jotted entries in note books filled while working for Lonely Planet as an editor — inspired descriptions of places and houses contain detail that could only have sprung from actual experience.
And de Kretser’s characters, Australians who appear exotic to a bloke raised in SA, takes me back to the mid-1950s, aged seventeen, when I was popped on the Maloja, a one-class P&O liner at Outer Harbour for five years away, shipboard with a mix of dour Melburnians who kept themselves to themselves and Sydneysiders, foreign beings who saw themselves as the real Aussies, at the time it seemed with some justification.
I have since visited Sydney many times and have conceded that my fellow travellers so long ago had a point — to grow up with such beauty from racy origins gave them a sort of vapid sophistication sadly lacking in those meekly stepping out from Adelaide or Melbourne back then, careful young men setting out on some Brit- or Eurocentric short course, the brave secretaries and nurses, with their grey pleated Fletcher Jones suits and calf handbags, to see the world, to shiver lonely in London, lonely and not so slim on a diet of Golliwog jam, sliced bread and ersatz cream, to save up and tour the Continent again and again, often teaming up in holy matrimony with men they would not have given a second glance back home.
De Kretser’s men and women are these people’s children, thirty forty fifty years on, young again, now sophisticated, worldly, borne hither and thither in swift aircraft — $1000+ to pretty well anywhere, Australians having discovered in the meantime what lies between our shores and Europe or beyond again in the USA, rather than five weeks from Adders to Tilbury via Fremantle, Colombo, Bombay, Aden, Port Said, Marseille, Gibraltar in a six-berth cabin three meals a day, deck sports, swimming pool for a hard-earned £60.
Michelle de Kretser brings us the inhabitants of our lonely planet and the alternative world of Neighbours up to speed. I have had my fingers crossed for the last couple of months willing her to win the Miles Franklin, for the judges not to be led down some blind path to choose a winner on some misgiven notion that to be serious, to be worthy, a book has to be based on some world cataclysm, rather than the political but intensely personal events that overwhelm Ravi, de Kretser’s male protagonist in this rich, brilliant, memorable book, Questions of Travel.