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~Not a book to take on your travels~
'Questions of Travel' by Michelle de Kretser was one of my favourite books of 2012 although technically it was only released in 2013. I read a lot of books. Even with a well stocked Kindle, piles of the things build up around my home threatening to topple over and attack my cats. Often at the end of a week I can't even remember what I've read because I get through so many books. But only relatively rarely - perhaps half a dozen times a year - does a book take over my life, forces me to put all the non-essential things on hold and focus all my attention on it. When I received 'Questions of Travel' by Michelle de Kretser as an uncorrected proof back in October or November last year, it took over my life.
Unfortunately since my life involves a lot of travel - you might start to see why it was so clearly the book for me - I was restricted in how much time I could give it because it was just such an enormous book. Running to over 500 pages in the large format pages, it was simply too big to take away with me. I reluctantly left it at home like a new lover, waving it goodbye as I headed to the airport, thinking of it the whole time I was away and returning hungry and excited to carry on reading when I got back at the end of the week. I know it sounds crazy but this book got under my skin and wouldn't leave me alone. It's hard to explain why I loved it so much. Undoubtedly the theme of travel got me hooked but once I'd started, it was the fabulous development of the two main characters that kept me reading.
~Laura the Globetrotter~
Australian Laura travels to leave behind an unhappy childhood, funded by an inheritance from a maiden aunt and inspired by a box of her aunt's travel mementos - an opera programme, a glass bead, a restaurant menu. We're introduced to a thoughtful young woman, one who intends to save an ant from the bathroom sink but forgets and washes her hands, sending the ant down the drain. She muses that "perhaps suffering isn't a sign that God is absent or indifferent or cruel. Perhaps all the horrible things happen because he gets distracted".
With no need to earn a living, Laura bounces around the world, Asia, Europe, back eventually to Australia where she gets a job writing guidebooks for a company clearly inspired by Lonely Planet. Off again to research new destinations, bouncing about like a homeless person. Laura is a plain woman, not blessed with any great beauty or sensuality and she takes love - or sex - where she finds it, falling into bed with men as part of her travel story. She visits places as a tourist, lives in other cities for extended periods, researches places for their inclusion in her guides. She is - as my mother would say - someone with 'ants in her pants'. With nothing to tie her to home, she wanders the world. Sometimes happy, not always fulfilled, searching for something that's unexpressed and unfound.
Sri Lankan Ravi doesn't especially want to travel until his life is put in danger by the political campaigning of his wife and her colleagues. He has to seek asylum, fleeing his homeland and shocking violent events to look for sanctuary in Australia. Like Laura he doesn't ever entirely fit in. Even when things go well for him he can't quite relax into just being. He's aided in his search for a place to call home by a variety of earnest and well meaning women who seem to scare and intimidate him. He finds everything strange and eschews comfort and ease, almost as if feeling he doesn't deserve it.
~Structure and Entwinement~
We join the two characters as children. Laura is only two when we're told her twin brothers tried to kill her. Hundreds of chapters follow - sometimes taking polite turns, first Laura, then Ravi, often just erupting onto the page in no particular order. Some chapters are little more than a paragraph in length, others more conventionally chapter-like in length. Each is headed with the name of the character and the period of the events - Laura 1970s, Ravi 1980s. Only when we reach 2000 do the actual years appear rather than the decades. At times I found it annoying to have multiple chapters identified in identical ways. If you lose your bookmark there are few clues to help you find your place.
Whilst reading we can't help wondering how the two people we come to know so well and so intimately will eventually move into each other's orbits, how the two threads will eventually knot together but even when they do, it's highly unlikely that you'll have predicted how. The journey shouldn't fool you into thinking that the eventual destination will be predictable.
~Travel on the page~
De Kretser takes us on a long and fascinating tour of the world, dripping with authentic travel experience. Her descriptions of places are rich in detail and realism whilst carefully avoiding any 'guidebook' tendencies. She's also one of the few writers to identify that travel and being away from home isn't all fun and stimulation; that there are times so lonely and so sad that her characters would swap places with anyone just to have a normal life, whatever that is. There's a strange balance of the compulsion to wander and the drive to seek a place that feels like 'home'.
The descriptions of Sri Lanka sizzle on the page and it's not surprising since De Kretser grew up in that country. The sections set in Australia - where she now lives - are equally insightful and well observed. In between the places she knows by her own life, she takes us to Bali, to London, to Venice and many more locations.
Ironically when I started to read I read the back cover and said to myself "I know exactly where this is going to end" and indeed it turned out that I did. The magic of the story-telling is that by the time I got to the end, I'd completely forgotten that I already thought I knew the final destination. I sat in shock, the book on the sofa behind me, completely stunned. I felt I'd come to know Laura so well that I was deeply and - seemingly personally - impacted by her outcome. I walked around the house in a daze, shaking my head in disbelief. I had ploughed through this giant book, invested many days in reading and getting to know Laura and Ravi, only to have everything snatched back in the final paragraphs.
Questions of Travel
Michelle de Kretser
Published by Allen and Unwin
With thanks to the publishers for the pre-publication copy and Curiousbookfans.co.uk for organising the book. An earlier version of the review appears at CBF.