Michelle de Kretser: The urban jungle

After a haunting novel set in colonial Ceylon, Michelle de Kretser brings the troubled past of trendy Melbourne to life. Boyd Tonkin talks to a writer who summons up the ghosts that stalk the modern world
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The Independent Culture

The best stories lodge in the memory and return to haunt their readers. Michelle de Kretser, whose fiction often dwells on the ghostly afterglow of narrative, spooked my summer holiday last year. On a showery, late-monsoon August day in Sri Lanka, I took a cab through swamp to jungle to the lovingly-preserved home of Bevis Bawa. A soldier, lawyer and aesthete, Bawa carved a beautifully unlikely landscape garden out of the tropical profusion. I found myself viewing every classical statue, flowering tree and oddly displaced lawn through the lens of The Hamilton Case. In that novel, de Kretser captured a doomed clan's rage for order as colonial Ceylon was engulfed and smothered by a history that not even the most manic cultivation could resist.

The author has never been to Bawa's "Brief Garden". In fact, she has rarely re-visited the island where, the daughter of a judge, she lived for 14 years until the family migrated to Australia. "I deliberately didn't go back when I was writing The Hamilton Case," she says over coffee atop a high-rise West End hotel, the hubbub of London reduced to a silent diagram. "Memory is good filter. You remember what is striking. Fiction is about selection – it's about leaving out – and memory does that for you." Besides, she grew up in Ceylon: "It's a lost country, a ghost country. The name changed the week I left... Modern Sri Lanka has been shaped, sadly, by the war [between the state and Tamil Tigers]. I, luckily, have not been part of that."

All the same, a Colombo paper recently greeted her new novel's triumph in a Sydney fiction award as: "Sri Lankan author wins prize". "I was extremely touched," says a writer who avoids the stale protocols of "migrant identity" fiction and, "most of the time", feels "terribly Australian. It's a successful multi-cultural model in that sense. When multi-culturalism is working well, you're not aware of it."

After a debut, The Rose Grower, set in revolutionary France, The Hamilton Case proved a breakthrough book. Here was a dazzlingly accomplished author who commanded all the strokes. Her repertoire stretched from a hallucinatory sense of place to a mastery of suspense, sophisticated verbal artistry and a formidable skill in navigating those twisty paths where history and psychology entwine. De Kretser, for years an editor at the Lonely Planet travel group, came to fiction relatively late. Indeed, the sole quality that I missed in The Hamilton Case was a feeling of intimate investment in an island story that, after all, was hers as well. Yet it did lurk there, somehow buried in the rampant foliage.

"Going to Australia was an awfully big adventure," she recalls. "There was no sense that this was anything but gain. And I always had that sense that I never said goodbye properly. I think that, completely unconsciously, that novel was my way of going back and taking my leave in a more considered and, I hope, honouring way than I was capable of when I was young."

Leave-taking, loss and the fragile gifts of memory propel de Kretser's third novel. In The Lost Dog (Chatto & Windus, £15.99), the Anglo-Indian academic Tom Loxley – who himself left Asia for Australia at 14, and now writes on Henry James – spends eight days searching for a beloved mongrel who goes missing in the bush. Day by anxious day, we learn of his insecure childhood in the "aromatic streets" of south India; of his delphic, seductive artist friend Nelly Zhang, the queen of a bohemian tribe; and of the unburied secrets that return to "ghost" his life and hers. Behind their troubled affections lies the "ghost story" of Australia itself, "this country with a haunted past, which we don't want to think about too much. Yet it comes and visits us when we're least expecting it."

The mutt comes back, as did de Kretser's own – late – dog, Gus, after a longer absence. "We never knew how he got free. So there was real-life story with a mystery at the heart of it." As for the family riddles that crowd around the disappearance of Nelly's banker husband, they remain as tantalising as the semi-occult tales of Henry James – which do the literary haunting here. De Kretser praises the "fantastic undecidability" of James's open-ended plots. "James is so endlessly quotable," she says, "but one of his great mots is 'Never say you know the last word about any human heart'." William Boyd, she notes, liked the idea so much he took it for a title. "People always exceed your understanding of them. People are endlessly surprising". And so, "No one is beyond redemption."

The Lost Dog springs its own surprises. Many British readers still expect a literary Australia of broad vistas and open hearts. Yet de Kretser depicts an arch and arty Melbourne, so steeped in coterie in-jokes and post-modern ironies that it could make Shoreditch feel like Saskatchewan.

As she evokes Nelly's deadpan art of urban collage and kitschy bricolage, de Kretser becomes a psychogeographer to match London's Iain Sinclair or Will Self. "More than 80 per cent of the country's population lives in big cities," she says, "not different from London or Berlin or Paris or LA. They are Australian, but they are also global." Even out in the soggy wilderness, when Tom looks for his little beast in the jungle, man-made forests have replaced first growths: "The wilderness is not as wild as it seems."

The novel unleashes plenty of hyper-conscious irony, but finally muzzles it. Tom, a dark and timid migrant boy, has learned to flourish as an ironist: "the trope of mastery; of seeing through, of knowing better". Nelly, with her parodic, thrift-shop Chinoiserie, at first seems to trump even him in a taste for masquerade. But need, and curiosity, will get the better of both.

Tom's love for his wayward hound trumps every cool boho pose. "Dogs don't do irony," de Kretser points out. Above all, his relationship with his ailing mother, Iris, deepens his "affiliation" to others. Divorced and childless, Tom must learn to act as "parent to his own mother". He has to clear up the mess of a mutinous body and a wandering mind. "Sex is something written about so endlessly," says de Kretser. "Now, the bedroom door is so wide open. But bodily functions are still slightly taboo in literature. I wanted to write about it in a way that was neither prudish nor sensational." Although "In the West, there's a tendency to privilege mind over body," ageing means "that is reversed... In the end, the body will triumph over all of us."

De Kretser had her own warning foretaste of debility when a slipped disc plunged her into pain and immobility. "If you've got any kind of debilitating illness, it is like a flash-forward into dependent old age. And what you fear... is that you will be treated as an object. I was very lucky: I had a very loving partner who looked after me. But I couldn't walk." Later, she even came to think of her affliction as "one of those weird gifts, in very unwelcome packaging. It did give me... a glimpse of what it is like when the circumference of your life shrinks to the constraints of the body. I've always been someone who considered myself an intellectual – the mind, the mind, the mind. But it was a reminder that you are a body."

Some critics have saluted de Kretser's almost flagrant virtuosity while worrying that she might come over as – well, too clever by half. That strikes me as unjust. The Lost Dog showcases not only a writer as subtly perceptive about feelings as ideas, but one who, via Tom, traces a thinker's quest to overcome cerebral detachment.

What is true is that the novel loads much of its emotional charge not into talk but into things – from Iris's tatty ornaments to Nelly's artfully-mounted detritus of condom wrappers or mutilated dolls. Both women seek to invest "the valueless things of the world with joy". De Kretser connects this urge to curate ephemera with the migrant's separation from a cherished past.

When her mother died, in 2006, "I was just struck by how little she owned that was hers, apart from her jewellery. So much had to be just left behind. This is the story of so many people's lives in a century of migration." In contrast, "If you were to come to my house you would notice that I don't do minimalism. It is extremely cluttered." She admits that "I do haunt flea-markets". In the novel, bric-a-brac and kitsch stand for oceans of unspoken passion or yearning. As Henry James himself advised, de Kretser's fiction shows rather than tells. And the story that it shows, just as she hopes, "goes on haunting you, after you have finished reading it". The artful beasts in this jungle never go to sleep.

Michelle de Kretser

Born in Colombo, Michelle de Kretser (49) moved with her family from Sri Lanka to Australia in 1972. She graduated from Melbourne University and then studied in France. In Australia, she worked as an editor for the Lonely Planet guides, and set up its travel-literature list. During a sabbatical she wrote her first novel, The Rose Grower (1999). Her second, The Hamilton Case – set in colonial Ceylon – won several awards including the Encore Award and a Commonwealth Writers Prize. The Lost Dog is now published by Chatto & Windus, and has just won the Christina Stead fiction prize. De Kretser lives with her partner, poet and translator Chris Andrews, in Melbourne.