Monday, March 4, 2013

Reading Notes: Questions of Travel and The Burial

These reviews form part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013 and to read the longlist for the 2013 Stella Prize.

When the Stella longlist was announced, two titles that I found intriguing were Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel and Courtney Collins' The Burial.

Having read both, I think my instinct was justified, although it must be said, these are two very different books, with distinct strengths and weaknesses.

I wondered whether it was wise to review them together, actually; it's not like they are in any sense narratively or stylistically linked. Where de Kretser's book sprawls, at over 500 pages, Collins' is tight and taut at just on 300.  Where de Kretser pulls off a magic trick with language and plot to engage the reader, almost against their will, with two characters of dubious likeability, Collins' protagonist is attractive enough that I was drawn into her story (and on her side) by page 10. Where Questions of Travel ambles, sometimes apparently without destination (although this, too, is a trick - there is always an endpoint in mind), The Burial charts a remarkably straight course from opening violence to concluding denouement. These are not the same kind of book, and so, in some ways, comparisons are invidious.

Nonetheless, having read them more or less on top of one another, some meta themes did jump out at me. Although boiling complex books down to simple statements is not really a good idea, I will go out on a limb at say that de Kretser's book asks, repeatedly, What is the point of living? What is an authentic life? while Collins' asks, even more reductively, Why do we struggle to live when living hurts so much? The characters, plots and devices that each writer chooses to explore their themes are fascinating, engaging, and in one case entirely successful, in the other mostly so.


Questions of Travel is, it must be said, the absolute slowest starting book I have ever ended up liking. Normally, anything that has me saying "meh" at the quarter-way mark is going to end up consigned to the trash bin of literature for me. (To wit - Will Self's Umbrella. Ugh.) Using two characters as her lenses - Laura Fraser, an unattractive Australian child, then teen, then adult, and Ravi Mendes, a Sri Lankan boy who grows into an early nerd in the dawning of the Internet - de Kretser flipflops between the two in childhood, exposing unwantedness, discomforts and discoveries with a calm, measured, almost somnolent voice. There is no denying that de Kretser writes beautifully - her prose is luminous, it's pleasurable to read - but the lack of discernible plot, and my inability to care one iota about either Laura or Ravi, had me perilously close to giving up on this one at the 25% mark.

However, it started to come together for me once de Kretser (finally!) got Laura overseas and travelling. Her observations about the nature of travel - about what we do when we go places, what we're searching for - unfold slowly, but are all the richer for that. The interweaving of Ravi's story, with his discovery of the early Internet and his relationship to it, started to work very well for me. I particularly liked de Kretser's treatment of the online world and its relationship to meatspace - she manages to say something real without either reifying or decrying the changing ways in which people experience the world and travel.

The murder of Ravi's wife (a political activist) and young son explodes in the middle of this book like a bomb - despite some pretty heavy-handed flagging, I wasn't expecting it, and it shocked me into my first real emotional response to the book. The way in which de Kretser treats Ravi after that - his withdrawal, his asylum seeking time in Australia, his relationships to others - rang utterly and painfully true to me. His wife Malini's ghost, and that of his son, are always with Ravi and the book is unambiguous that they always will be. Some hurts don't heal.

Laura's (presumed) death at the end of the book, caught in the tsunami, affected me much less, because I still did not feel engaged with her as a character or as a person, even then. Much more than Ravi, I thought Laura was de Kretser's mouthpiece to say all the things she wanted to say. Her relationships with others - with her art professor / lover Charlie, her gay friend in London, her co-worker and friend Robyn at the travel publisher she ends up working at, her married lover Paul, her brother Cameron, her father, her landlord Carlo - are all Symbols of Something, in my mind. Each relationship, each travel experience, is used to underline the point: Laura's life is meaningless, but so is everyone's, so why do we bother? That sounds very grim, but actually de Kretser approaches it with real curiosity. Because clearly we *do* bother, and unpicking that is at the heart of her book.

The Burial is a much, much less crowded stage in terms of characters, even adjusted for length - it's basically the story of horse thief, abused wife and cattle rustler Jessie (based on a historical figure called Jessie Hickman), stockman Jack Brown (who is also Jessie's lover), police sergeant and dope addict Andrew Barlow, and, as a lesser but still present malevolent presence, Jessie's husband Fitz Henry, who she murders at the opening of the book.

The central narrative device of this book is one that utterly broke my heart but also connected me firmly to the story from the start. The text is narrated by Jessie's dead child, born prematurely after Jessie kills her husband and buried by her in a shallow grave because she thinks the little one cannot live. The child tells Jessie's story, and Jack Brown's, and Andrew Barlow's, but she tells more than that - she tells the story of the bones of the earth, of the tragedy of wanting to live even when life is pain, of the bush and the struggles it holds.

Unlike de Kretser's book, this one struck me as very Australian in its aesthetic, and not just because it's set in the bush (although that doesn't hurt, of course). Collins uses many turns of phrase, and patterns of speech, that mark the book as from here without being stiffly contrived about it. The plot is so simple - a dead run that goes Murder - Burial - Escape - Pursuit - Theft - More Pursuit - Capture - Escape? But it works and is very, very strong; a vision completely achieved, in my view.

So, bottom line, are they worth reading? YES, undoubtedly. I would recommend both to most readers, although I would caution people that Questions of Travel requires a commitment to pushing past a very, very slow start.

Shortlist verdict:

Yes for The Burial;
Maybe for Questions of Travel, depending on the strength of the rest of the list.

*UPDATE 27/3: Questions of Travel and The Burial were both shortlisted for the Stella, and Questions of Travel has also just been named on the longlist for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award. 

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