Book review: Questions of travel, By Michelle  de Kretser

 

David Evans
Saturday 15 February 2014 01:00
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In a digression on history midway through Questions of Travel – one of many digressions in Michelle de Kretser’s plump, ambitious novel – European imperialism is ascribed to “greed, curiosity and the human reluctance to stay still”. Restlessness, the author suggests, is a universal affliction; the impulse to travel not necessarily a noble one.

The slow-burning narrative alternates between two protagonists – Ravi, a Sri Lankan web developer, and Laura, an Australian travel writer – and follows them through the 1980s and 1990s. Laura spends years backpacking in Europe, making and discarding friends and lovers; Ravi loses his wife to Tamil terrorists and flees to Australia. They finally meet in the early 2000s,as colleagues at a Lonely Planet-style publishing house in Sydney.

De Kretser writes movingly of the sudden attachments and partings that mark her characters’ peripatetic lives. And her evocations of place are wonderfully precise: Naples is a “callous city, a raddled grand dame with filth under her nails”; Shanghai is “all suspension … a glamour bar that floated in neon night”.

Even as she evokes the pleasures of travel, however, de Kretser wants us to think about its underlying meaning and purpose. She draws an interesting analogy between the tourist’s experience and everyday life in the internet age; when Ravi first discovers the wonders of the web he realises that “the world had shrunk”, giving us access to far-flung people and places but only through a dubious privileging of surface over depth.

De Kretser raises profound questions – is the connectedness of modern life an improvement over the rootedness of old? Is any attempt to confront a foreign culture fated to end in dubious simplification? – but like all the best novelists, she leaves the answers up to her readers.

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