“It’s not a page-turner” was the comment I received from a friend on noticing I was reading Michelle de Kretser’s 2013 Miles Franklin Award winning novel Questions of Travel. That was approximately 15 months ago. A few days later, only a few pages in and admitting defeat, it went back on the shelf.
With more time on my hands over Christmas and a planned few days away, a second attempt was in order. I made it to the end: some 515 pages. It took nearly three weeks. Questions of Travel is certainly not a page-turner. And nor is it a book that needs time and concentration. It’s simply tedious and lugubrious.
“All through the drab season, she was granted intervals of grace.” The writer may have been talking of Laura and her time at Ramsey’s, the fictional Sydney-based travel-book publishing company, but it’s a summation of Questions of Travel. Only the intervals of grace are short, the drab season extended.
The novel has certainly polarised opinion – some have called it ‘masterful’, ‘brave’, ‘thought-provoking’. Others have been less than kind. I fall into the second camp.
Through two separate characters, Laura and Ravi, and 40 years of separate narratives, de Kretser explores/questions travel and tourism, work and leisure, friendship, family, the ties that bind.
Sydney-born, Laura is an outsider, blamed by her father and older twin brothers for the death of her mother (who died 2 years after the birth of her daughter from breast cancer). At the earliest opportunity, Laura, like so many Australians, escapes to London and so begins some 20 years of peripatetic existence. Years of house-sitting and travel writing result in an ever moving lifestyle with few roots – it’s only after glimpsing the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games on TV that Laura realises she is home-sick. She returns home.
Her’s is a story of loneliness, isolation and the search for a sense of belonging. It’s a fractured, frustrating story that, certainly prior to her return to Australia, is aimless, judgemental, cynical: a stream of consciousness from a person who, in herself, is not very interesting.
Running concurrently to Laura’s dull judgemental life is that of Ravi, a Sri Lankan living through the island’s civil war. Initially, his is the more interesting story as he navigates his way through schooling, family life, poverty. Yet, in spite of the tragedy that forces him to flee his home, even Ravi’s story ultimately lacks any real depth.
It is in Sydney in 2004 that Laura and Ravi’s paths cross. But (in a nice touch), there’s no fireworks or life-changing relationship. Laura is a copy-writer at Ramsey’s – Ravi, seeking political asylum, an intern. They share an occasional cigarette together in the staff carpark.
Michelle de Kretser undoubtedly writes beautifully – her lyrical prose and occasional turns of phrase the highlight of Questions of Travel. But all too often it slipped into self-indulgent rambling by characters we cared little about. At its core, de Kretser is exploring the emotions around the subject of travel, migration and human movement. Ravi’s perspective of Sydney, the occasional comment from Laura about Naples, Prague, London are seen through the eyes of outsiders, visitors. But all too often the narrative is hollow, distant, ringing of judgement rather than being insightful. The result is Questions of Travel is a major disappointment.