The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

I finished Michelle de Kretser’s latest novel, The Life to Come, on my way to last week’s Stella Prize announcement. It was appropriate to be reading de Kretser’s beautifully crafted words as I flew to Sydney, and even more fitting that I was there for the announcement of a literary prize – the book is set in Sydney (with snatches in Paris and Sri Lanka) and orbits around Pippa, a writer who longs for success.

The Life to Come is structured around various people at different stages in Pippa’s life, creating loosely linked stories from their individual perspectives. Some of these people are peripheral and others know Pippa well – from her university flatmate and a Parisian friend, to her elderly neighbour and a woman ‘adopted’ by her charismatic mother-in-law, Eva – it’s through their eyes that we see Pippa’s life progress. Structurally it’s interesting, and de Kretser provides lots of detail along the way to link the stories.

I couldn’t stand Pippa. Self-absorbed and unthinking, she’s the sort of person who, if I knew in real life, would have me gritting my teeth if I saw them coming toward me on the street. Of course, I didn’t mind reading about Pippa and there were some priceless moments where de Kretser pokes fun at her own character. According to the publicists, The Life to Come explores ‘…our flawed perception of other people’, and certainly de Kretser has fully achieved that with her clever narrative structure and self-centred Pippa.

There were mornings when Pippa woke as full of fear as a hospital. It was occasioned by the cold realisation that she had grit, longing, imagination, a capacity for hard work, a measure of selfishness, a shot of insanity – in short, everything needed for greatness except talent.

So many of de Kretser’s sentences are beautifully done and read in isolation they are charming. And yet, en masse, the story feels over-written (you know when you eat one lolly too many and your teeth ache from the sugar…it was the reading equivalent of that).

In the moist, grey summer dawns, George felt that he was walking into a book he had read long ago. The grainy light was a presage. Something was coming – rain, for certain, and a catastrophe.

It was a wayward sort of Sunday with a trembly blue sky.

Winter had gripped the day like a lover.

Sydney was a place where everything piled up behind you. All its windows watched and shone. Those sad palm trees – their broken green spokes! The city’s beauty, like its money, was self-important, calculated to stun.

As she did in Questions of Travel, de Krester nails cultural cringe. In fact, it was the highlight of the book – Pippa’s loud gadding about as a food blogger in Paris and Eva’s collection of interesting dinner-party guests of ‘diverse ethnicity’, was so pointed, and so sly, that as my laughter faded I paused to wonder how much of the joke was on me (quite a lot probably, given my introductory paragraph! At least I can self-reflect, unlike Pippa…).

…Melbourne, where the brainy girls wore stiff, dark clothes like the inmates of nineteenth-century institutions, with here and there an exhibitionist in grey.

‘I can remember when it became fashionable to have a convict in the family tree. All the amateur genealogists hoped to find one. Now you get people who dream up an Aboriginal ancestor. Is it progress? Or another kind of stealing to persuade ourselves we’re legit?’

Eva was the kind of woman who could carry off a fine knit. She referred to herself as a ‘citizen of conscience’ and was in favour of sculpture in malls.

Setting out from home, the Australians, like fortunate children, had expected to be loved.

3/5 Solid but if you haven’t read any de Kretser, start with Questions of Travel.

Pippa was running a Facebook poll on whether people preferred their freekah toasted or not. Céleste asked her mother, ‘Why do Australians go on so much about food?’
‘Because they live in a country of no importance’.

That quote made me laugh out loud. Here’s a recipe for one of my favourite dishes, Hellenic Republic’s ancient grains salad (featuring blanched freekah).

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12 responses

    • The literary festival was fantastic, as were the characters of Eva and the neighbour but the writing was so detailed it was exhausting – that said, I know I’m in the minority on this one!

    • I highlighted dozens of paragraphs and as standalone quotes they’re beautiful but all that beauty is relentless and I kind of wanted the author to get to the guts of what she was saying (which she does, right at the end).

    • I think it was too soon after Questions of Travel for me (I read that less than a year ago and really enjoyed it) – too much of this book felt familiar, so I guess I can say her style is consistent!

  1. I love your definition of overwriting, you have to be very good to get away with writing for writing’s sake. I also enjoyed the definitions of Sydney and Melbourne, both instantly recognisable and both completely ignoring the 95% of ordinary working people not in the knowledge and arts economies.

    • Re overwriting: the fact is, who doesn’t like eating lollies…?!

      de Kretser’s Melbourne and Sydney observations alone make the book worth reading – I’m kind of amazed at how much she gets away, given that she’s poking fun at her own crowd. Equally, all the bits where Pippa is passing judgement on things in Europe – sooooo good.

      • Oh definitely… I can always pick the Australian writers who view their country from the outside looking in… de Kretser & Tsiolkas especially… but also those who cast a critical eye such as Flanagan & Winton.

  2. Sounds really sharp & very entertaining! I see what you mean about the overwriting – I like a pared back style and the moist, grey summer dawns quote had me grinding my teeth, but I think I’d still give this a go 🙂

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