When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.
Laura’s brothers decide to kill her because, having made an association between their younger sister being breast fed and their mother’s death, they think Laura is responsible for their mother contracting breast cancer. This immediately sets Laura up as an outsider.
Her father also recognises her status as such:
His daughter’s eyes were coins of a lowly bronze denomination. Crossing a room, she caused him to fear that she would collide with the furniture. He couldn’t conceive of the absence of beauty in a woman as anything other than a misfortune and had no doubt that he was responsible for Laura’s affliction.
Her position, alongside the stories Laura’s Aunt Hester tells her about her travels in Europe, means there’s no real surprise when Laura, on inheriting Hester’s fortune, sets ‘out to see the world’.
Laura’s story sits alongside that of Ravi.
The sea tugged patiently at the land, a child plucking at a sluggish parent. That was the sound behind all other sounds. Ravi’s life ran to its murmur of change.
Ravi lives in a little town in Sri Lanka and so, rather than traveling himself, is often exposed to tourists. Over a few short chapters we travel through Ravi’s life from childhood to marriage and a son of his own. We see his radical wife, Malini, and himself trying to live their life while the civil war continues:
One night, a little further down the coast, the incoming tide had brought what seemed to be a collection of colossal turds. The sun, creeping up on the array, revealed bodies from which the heads and limbs had been removed.
One of the things that most interests Ravi though is the way most of us now travel every day:
He was haunted by the sense that he was witnessing the birth of a new world. A digital revolution was gathering speed. He ached to be part of it. Soon it would transform the way people lived, he told Malini; its power, located everywhere and nowhere, would exceed armies. He used a word that had become fashionable: global.
De Kretser explores the idea of travel in a myriad of ways: being a tourist and collecting souvenirs; emigrating to another country; making housesitting a lifestyle choice; working on travel guides; seeking asylum; using the world wide web.
But this is not just a book of issues; de Kretser successfully marries her subject with the lives of Ravi and Laura, two characters whose stories we invest it.
Three things about this novel are beautifully executed: the plotting of Laura and Ravi’s lives is done in a way that makes them feel balanced without drawing them together in an obvious or clichéd manner; the end of the novel is as close to perfect as I think you could possibly get, and de Kretser’s descriptions are so precise and fresh they had me highlighting practically every page.
When there was a scorcher, afternoon tightened around the streets in a blinding bandage. On the nature strips, the nerve had gone from the grass. But in the park the light was necklaces and pendants looping through trees.
The Pacific never tired of rubbing up to the city, a lively blue hand slipping in to grope.
A waterfall in a forest was mourning its lost life as a cloud.
If I have a criticism of the book it’s that the short chapters, moving between Laura and Ravi and through their early years, meant it took a while for me to lodge the basic details of their situations. If I was in English teacher mode, I might say that de Kretser had done this deliberately to make the reader a tourist, travelling from one destination to another, but that might just make me a pretentious fool attempting to read too much into the use of a dual narrative. And why shouldn’t a reader be made to do some work?
Questions of Travel is a stunning book. It’s not an easy read (occasionally in both senses) but it is one that if you choose to invest, will return you a hefty reward. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michelle de Kretser’s name on this year’s Booker longlist.
Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for the review copy.