Book review: Questions Of Travel, by Michelle de Kretset

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WE THINK nothing now of hol­idays abroad, long-haul flights, a few weeks in the sun to break up the dreary seasons.

Questions Of Travel

Michelle de Kretser

Allen & Unwin, £12.99

For some Westerners, including Laura, the protagonist in Questions Of Travel, years can be spent travelling, seeing the sights and telling tales about it when back home.

Of course, she is Australian – what other nationality is so emblematic of this global nomadism? – a deft touch among so many in de Kretser’s sprawlingly assured fourth novel.

But there is the flip side of the movement of people across the Earth. Ravi, whose story alternates with that of Laura’s, is born and raised in Sri Lanka, and eventually becomes one among the 15 million people on the globe forced by violence and unrest to leave.

The two characters embark on their international journeys – hers driven by seeking pleasure, a sense of place, funded by an inheritance left by an aunt; his driven by the need for a safe haven. It starts in the 1960s in each of the pair’s childhoods and arcs through the 20th century. Hers is middle-class but marred by a maladroit family set-up due to the death of her mother and the vague distaste of her father. Ravi, a Sinhalese, meanwhile grows up fatherless but loved, surrounded by ­sisters and his mother, Catholic teachers and a dog called ­Marmite. His village is a magnet for tourists, until the uprising stops them from coming.

The story starts in chapters headed by decades, and pieces together recent history in vast detail, enlivened by interactions of people across the globe in prose that is witty, absorbing and florid with ideas. After a casual sexual encounter between Laura and an émigré in Strasbourg having come to an awkward impasse, de ­Kretser crams the scene with allusion and echoes:

“At this point, Emile and Laura found themselves with nothing to say to each other. What they had done in the bed with the dip in the middle was timeless. But now the past had shown up. It was a tree whose roots split the dusty grey carpet; its branches brushed the walls. They held bright, harsh voiced parrots and a soldier planting a tricolore in a mound of corpses and a boy who slept with The Three Musketeers ­beside his pillow.”

Chapters then slow down to become years during which Laura and Ravi go from analogue to digital, she a travel writer settled in London and he a maths teacher who spends more time setting up websites. Among the jobs in bars, the descriptions of the jacarandas and the suitcases left on the tarmac, stories collide and details emerge that disturb. Insurgency and retaliation in Sri Lanka ebbs and flows: bodies wash up on shore, skulls split open with the sound of coconuts falling to the ground. A falling out between two women in an office in Colombo takes on sinister overtones on a memorial website seen years later in Australia. Events that are foreshadowed in Ravi’s story still deliver a palpable shock.

As Ravi and Laura’s travels bring them together, their meeting is both casually mundane and eventually breathtaking. Questions Of Travel may be long, eventful journey, but the destination is worth it. «