If you have a neat row of Lonely Planet titles on your bookshelf – their bright blue spines and bold white lettering proclaiming exotic locations – then you ought to read Michelle de Kretser’s novel, Questions of Travel. Anyone who has sought an ‘authentic experience’, ‘immersed themselves’ in the culture of another country or thought they were ‘off the beaten track’ is likely to squirm –
“…the fraudulence of souvenirs that suggested pleasure while commemorating flight.”
“France – well, France had always been blighted by the necessary evil of the French. But if only Laura had seen Bangkok before the smog/ Hong Kong before the Chinese/ Switzerland before the Alps/ the planet before the Flood.”
The story charts the lives of two people. Laura, a Sydney-born art student – “And so, like a heroine, Laura came into an inheritance. There was only one thing to do. She set out to see the world” and Sri Lankan Ravi, who, as a child, was fascinated by geography –
“There was the matter of the Indian Ocean. These children were well acquainted with its fidgety expanse… Ravi, studying the map, saw that what he knew of existence, the reality he experienced as boundless and full of incident, had been reduced by the mapmaker to trifle.”
The ‘question of travel’ means very different things to Laura and Ravi. Laura is desperate to have ‘an experience’, yet reluctant to commit herself to anything in life. After traveling, she returns to Sydney to work for a publisher of travel guides.
“Across the world, the world-weary were waiting. Time after time, Laura would learn that she had missed the moment; to be a tourist was always to arrive too late.”
As a political refugee, Ravi’s travel is enforced and he settles in Sydney. Although Laura and Ravi’s lives intersect, the story is not built around their meeting. Instead, de Kretser examines the meaning of experience (particularly the exaggerated travel experience); displacement; identity; and the way in which technology has shrunk the world.
There’s a poetic quality to de Kretser’s writing and it’s easy to see why Questions of Travel snaffled literature awards. Although I generally prefer something less intricate, her descriptions had me re-reading and savouring the words –
“Oh, sea-invaded Sydney! The Pacific never tired of rubbing up the city, a lively blue hand slipping in to grope. It made you want to shout or sing – or swig the stars.”
“Hester’s ancient transistor still lay beside her bed. A death notice, a funeral: these were formal, they had a shape. But what was to be done with the spreading sadness of a radio in a perforated leather case.”
3/5 de Kretser’s writing is lush and her observations on travel are painfully accurate. Although the book faltered under its sheer length and repetitive structure (Laura and Ravi were beginning to get a little tiresome…) the ending, when it comes is swift and surprising.
I received my copy of Questions of Travel from the publisher, Little Brown & Company, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 6): Belfast 10°-15° and Melbourne 6°-15°.
Laura has dinner with her Italian housemate once a week. He cooks. If someone else is making it, I can’t say no to gnocchi.