Michelle de Kretser’s latest ambitious literary novel is ambitious in its scope. Her novel asks a myriad of questions about the benefits of travel, but also looks at the way we as individuals view the world. In her breathtaking novel de Kretser acknowledges the marvels of travel, but also the disconnected nature of travel, which often leaves the traveller feeling quite alone. Through guidebooks, maps and characters de Kretser brings the world to the reader.
The novel is split between two main protagonists. Laura is born in Australia and Ravi in Sri Lanka, where de Kretser was born and raised. Laura is from a middle class family, but her childhood has been far from easy. Her mother dies when she is young and her surgeon father is often absent. She is brought up by Aunt Hester, who through her travel books imbues Laura with her first taste for travel. On the death of her aunt she inherits enough money to begin her travels; she travels to many parts of the world including Indonesia, France, Italy and India finally settling, as many Australians do, in London. De Kretser allows us to view the world from Laura’s point of view, an outsider who previously had only experienced the wonders of Australia.
In London Laura becomes known as a reliable house sitter, but soon begins to earn a living writing about travel. She is described as fairly plain, even odd, as she attempts to find direction in her life through travel. Once back in Sydney her life seems to stabilise although it is far from run of the mill. She is displaced in every sense throughout the novel.
Interspersed between Laura’s story is Ravi’s contrasting one. He dreams of travel, but goes nowhere. Married to the feisty Malini, he works as an information technician. After terrible family events Ravi no longer feels safe in his own country, he is forced to leave Sri Lanka without his wife and child, seeking asylum in a land far safer than his own. Through the eyes of Ravi, an outsider, the reader is introduced to a different Australia from the one known to most of us.
De Kretser has written an elegant novel, full of questions rather than answers. Her two main disparate characters will in equal measures resonate and seem incomprehensible to the reader. It is a book of beauty, where fine details abound on every page creating a flawed, yet marvellous view of the world.
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