“No matter where you go, there you are.”
This quote, attributed to Confucius, is one that frequently comes to mind while reading Michelle de Kretser’s latest novel, Questions of Travel. The two central characters do make major geographic changes—yet no matter what their external surroundings are, their internal worlds remain stubbornly rooted.
Written as a double narrative, Krester’s hefty tome is ambitious in both scope and style; at times the passages are wry and beautifully rendered and at others they fall flat in a torrent of florid prose. The story is thus alternately absorbing and tedious.
The opening sentence is an interesting hook: “When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.” This leads to the tale of our female protagonist: the dowdy, artsy and affection-starved Laura Fraser, whose older brothers plot to murder her after their mother dies of breast cancer. After that plan is unsuccessful, Laura continues on with her lonely existence in Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s, continuously inspired by her great aunt’s stories of world travel. The author, in a true-to-life passage, intersperses Aunt Hester’s seemingly glamorous yarns with the far less appealing situations and emotions behind them.
Fittingly, when Aunt Hester dies and leaves Laura money, she uses it to travel. From London to Naples to Bali to Paris and back, she adopts a peripatetic lifestyle that leads to a freelance travel-writing career. Along the way, she becomes, in some ways, as jaded about journeying as her aunt was.
Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, Ravi Mendes grows up in the same era as Laura—without going anywhere. This changes when his relatively tranquil existence as a husband, father and website designer is shattered by a horrifying, violent tragedy. His escape then is to Laura’s native Australia, where she has returned to work for a travel guide company. And thus their parallel lives begin to converge.
The novel unfolds much the way real life does—there isn’t always a lot going on but there are flashes of great beauty, misery and discovery. Unfortunately, the true, relatable humanity of the characters is sometimes hidden behind the literary acrobatics performed by de Kretser. The reader may be impressed by the prose while also craving more depth in the characters.