This review first appeared in the Asian Review of Books on 22 September 2013
Questions of Travel opens with an intriguing line, “When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her”, and pulls you in. Why was the child thus marked, and did she survive?
Laura Fraser’s mother succumbed to breast cancer soon after she was born, linking her thus in her twin brothers’ minds to her demise. They hatch a plan to kill her through accidental drowning by making sure to open the safety catch on the swimming pool gate. But Laura survives the splash to be brought up in the care of elderly aunt Hester who “had spent the first seven years of her life in India, from which misfortune her complexion, lightly polished beech, never recovered”.
Nevertheless, Hester has been places, as evinced by her sky-blue travel case, the repository of souvenirs from her travels in the Continent. And she is happy to regale Laura with elaborate stories from each of those trips, recalling in magnificent detail all that was beautiful, while glossing over inconveniences such as “the unspeakable filth of Greek public lavatories”. No surprise then that Laura is hooked to the idea of travel from an early age.
Questions of Travel is Michelle de Kretser’s fourth novel, following the much-acclaimed The Lost Dog that was longlisted for the Booker in 2008. As the title suggests, this book is an exploration of travel, what it means in an increasingly connected world, what it throws up in its wake and what it reveals to us of our own selves in the process.
The narrative begins in 1960s and traverses to 2004, covering almost half a century of travel and concomitant reflection. It is told from the points of view of two people, the white Australian Laura Fraser and the Sinhalese Sri Lankan Ravi Mendes, in alternating chapters. While Laura is keen to leave her tidy Ozzie perch, spread her wings and discover the world, Ravi’s country is increasingly wrecked by sectarian conflict and a contingent of fleeing emigrants.
There is a stark contrast between the two stories: Laura leads a hippieish existence where everything is up for grabs while Ravi’s life is rooted in his family and birth place but increasingly imperiled by ethnic strife. De Kretser is a wordsmith, stringing her words such that they throw up vivid images, bring a quiet smile frequently to the lips and deliver many Ah-ha! moments. The narrative is constructed in short chapters with short sentences which give an instagrammatic feel to the text, a here-and-now telling of life through images, an online photo-sharing rendered via text. The effect is both magical and disconcerting; you want to sink your teeth into the story but you are distracted by some riveting imagery, and then, some more.
Perhaps this construct is an ingenious storytelling technique for a novel about travel, a series of linked snapshots. However, it has the effect of distancing the characters – we are very aware of watching a story unfold and never become one with the characters until midway through the story when boom! a terrible murder tosses Ravi straight into the mayhem of Sri Lankan ethnic politics.
Ravi is an easier character to empathize with. Defined by his relationships – with his mother, sisters, wife, son, his efforts to comprehend the terrible twin tragedy life has thrown at him are etched with verisimilitude. Ravi gets a much sought after opportunity to seek asylum in Australia – will he able to start life anew in a fresh land unburdened by the horrors of his past? Will the travel of a thousand miles help shed the baggage of loss and free him from fear?
Laura, meanwhile, comes across as a stereotypical hippie who gets to know a new place by sampling its cuisine, its sights and its men. (In contrast, when Ravi lands in Australia, he familiarizes himself with the place by walking for hours.) Her rather voracious appetite for each of these lands her a job with a travel guide, thus completing the virtuous circle. Laura’s life is the more instagrammatic of the two protagonists, the images supplanting the emotional heft of this story. To this reader at least Laura, despite her witty observations and keen eye, remained a bit of a cipher.
Questions of Travel is a strange beast, a bit of a chimera – it is packed with engaging anecdotes, glimmers with insight and wit, yet it disorients with its rapidly shifting tracks and leaves one slightly cold. Travel, especially in today’s global world, has questions and implications for each one of us. What is foreign or new when we have already consumed it before in countless images? Will the first sight of Eiffel Tower leave a new traveler slightly underwhelmed because the glossy images promised more? What is home when travel allows us to pack our bags and seek a new one wherever we may desire?
De Kretser tackles some of these questions in this baggy yet light novel – I wish she had wrestled with more might. Ultimately, Ravi Mendes decides he doesn’t want to naturalize and returns to his native Sri Lanka. Laura, meanwhile, wings her way back to Australia, timing her return with care. “Six months later, what still struck Laura were the hats, the babies in sunglasses, the Factor 30 sunscreen, the little kids on the beach in neck-to-knee cossies… The planet’s ills came home in six words: Australians were afraid of the sun.” Does travel then hold up a mirror to us?
With Ravi and Laura both returning to their native countries after their peregrinations, perhaps the writer is suggesting that the purpose of travel is to help us reassess and re-love our own homes.