Questions of Travel follows the stories of Laura and Ravi. Laura is a white Australian woman eager to escape her boring existence and embark on a journey of self discovery. Ravi is a Sri Lankan man who finds himself in Australia as an asylum seeker when his careful, gentle life falls apart. Both Laura and Ravi are outsiders. Laura because she doesn’t fit the patriarchal ideal of womanhood, she is made up of ‘too solid flesh’. She is a disappointment to her family. She is self absorbed and selfish. Ravi is the wrong type of asylum seeker because he hadn’t been in a detention centre, he came by plane, he doesn’t fit the narrative sold to us by the media. He sees value where others don’t. I spent a lot of the time reading this novel wondering when Ravi’s time would come, when things would work out, when it would all fall into place.
De Kretser takes the idea of travel broadening the horizon and cleverly subverts it. Characters retain their core selves regardless of their experiences. Once they are home old patterns re-emerge. Travel for the privileged is more something that you do to tick boxes ‘stayed in Earls Court-tick’; ‘had sex with a stranger on a Greek Island-tick’; than to change your way of being. It is a rite of passage that never leads anywhere.
De Kretser also makes some interesting points about white privilege. Holiday makers complain when Third World destinations are not an ‘authentic’ experience. Ravi is not sufficiently grateful for what he was given, grudgingly, in Australia. I think it is one of the strengths of De Kretser’s writing that she makes you feel this. I was feeling quite hostile towards Ravi for a while until I stopped to ask myself what he was supposed to be grateful for. Holiday promises are made and broken and forgotten, small things that might have made a big difference, that someone might hold out hope for. Voyages of discovery follow well worn paths. Australians are oblivious to what they have and what they take for granted.
This is a big novel, called ambitious by many, with lots of themes running through it of which I have only touched on a few. It is a long slow burn, but one I enjoyed. It is one that I will keep thinking about for a while yet. Of all the novels I have read for this challenge this is the one that has stayed with me the longest. Perhaps because I can remember my own unfulfilled promise – sending a poster of a platypus to a Catalan friend we met in London. Just because he couldn’t quite believe that such an animal was real.
This is my final book review for my first Australian Women Writer’s Challenge of 2014. Links to previous reviews and the full 2013 longlist are at the end of this post. I might read the 2014 Stella Longlist and do this again later in the year but I haven’t decided yet. I’m not sure if I can wait 12 months to read the 2014 list.
I am reading through the Stella Prize Longlist from 2013 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2014. The list can be found here.
I have previously reviewed The Sunlit Zone, Sea Hearts, Like a House on Fire, The Mind of a Thief The People Smuggler: the true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oskar Schindler’ of Asia and Mateship with Birds.