cover image Questions of Travel

Questions of Travel

Michelle de Kretser. Little, Brown, $25.99 (480p) ISBN 978-0-316-21922-8

While her earlier books The Lost Dog and The Hamilton Case were meditations on the nature of art and mystery, de Kretser’s brilliantly observed new novel explores the meaning of travel. Borrowing a title from the poet Elizabeth Bishop, de Kretser evokes and subverts the tradition of the literary travelogue—the chronicle of the leisured, intercontinental quest for self-improvement. The book moves back and forth between the lives of two very different characters, Australian Laura and Sri Lankan Ravi. Laura’s early travels, like Bishop’s, are funded by a surprise inheritance; she trades art school for guidebooks as she sets out to see the world. The death of one of her twin brothers when Laura is a teenager creates a vague menace that later follows her from continent to continent, reinforced by a silent caller with an unknown agenda who wakes her in the middle of the night a few times each year. For Ravi, childhood is filled with the anxiety of limited opportunity, while the violence of the Sri Lankan civil war rages in the background. In his early life, he travels in his mind, whether to Japan or Silicon Valley; later, travel becomes necessary, a way to find safety in a brutal world. De Kretser creates the anticipation that Laura and Ravi’s paths will eventually cross, but an epigraph from E.M. Forster signals not to expect an epiphany when they do meet. While “Only connect!” is the message at the heart of Forster’s Howards End, de Kretser’s book severs strong ties and dissolves weaker ones, making the broken more broken. Coming together, Ravi and Laura plan a new journey that begins in guidebook banality and ends in disaster. While de Kretser doesn’t provide the expected satisfactions, she offers deadly darts of observation that puncture clichés and deflate false enthusiasm. In the end she leaves you flat on the ground, possessed of harder truths. Agent: Sarah Lutyens, Lutyens & Rubinstein. (May)