2013 Other Prizes

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel Winner of 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Five words from the blurb: world, guides, tourist, return, dreams

Questions of Travel picked up almost every literary award possible when it was released in Australia. It also received a very mixed selection of reviews. I was interested to see how I’d react to this divisive book so I accepted a review copy. Unfortunately I’m still unsure what to make of it – my reactions are almost as mixed as the reviews!

The book focuses on two main characters: Laura, an Australian travelling the world in hope of finding the culture that she feels is missing from her country and Ravi, a Sri Lankan forced from his home by horrific events. The book has very little plot, but instead it explores the thoughts and emotions of those travelling away from home.

I shouldn’t have liked this book and thought about abandoning it on several occasions, but every time the lack of action began to bore me I was re-engaged by a fantastic piece of writing. I have done a lot of travelling and the experiences described in the book often rang true:

Laura had read widely to ready herself for adventure: traveller’s tales, histories, guidebooks. They warned of pickpockets. rabid dogs, unboiled water, children’s eyes in which the incautious might drown. But no one mentioned the sheer tedium of being a tourist. Dreaming of travel, Laura had pictured a swift slideshow of scenes. But oh, the long, blank hours that linked! … It was like being trapped in a particularly irritating Zen koan: In order to advance, the traveller must stay still.

The analysis into the motivations for travelling were fascinating and I think most people will be able to relate to some aspects of it. It was also nice to see details about how the Internet has made the world a smaller place and comparisons between finding ideas online rather than by travelling were thought provoking.

This is a book to be savoured slowly. The meandering plot often frustrated me, but once I decided to treat it more like a series of essays than a novel I began to enjoy it more. The fact I finished all 500+ pages, despite the lack of a compelling plot, is a testament to the quality of the writing. It isn’t for everyone, but if you appreciate good writing and are interested in travelling then this is the book for you.




15 replies on “Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser”

I think I may well be alone (possibly in the world!) in not liking this book – I gave up about halfway through as I just couldn’t connect with it at all and kept wishing I was doing anything but reading it. She relates a story right at the beginning about an aunt (?) in a relationship with a married man who ends up taking trips alone to Europe, that hooked me, but alas it was the best thing in the book.

As I recall it features some interesting observations on modern living and travel, though many of them aren’t really new (do we travel to escape to something, or from something?; the way in which air travel in particular made the world simultaneously smaller and bigger; the internet as a means of travel… yadda yadda yadda), but the two central characters almost never came to life for me and just seemed like mouthpieces for de Kretser’s musings.

I found the prose style made it a real slog to get through – she seems to abhor anything that even whiffs of exposition, which is admirable in its way but it meant I sometimes struggled to get hold of scenes: I lost count of the number of times a line completely threw me and I’d go back to the start of the scene and read it again thinking I must’ve missed something, but no, often she simply doesn’t give you enough information to build a mental image from. I seem to recall one scene with two characters in a hotel room (Ravi and a woman?) where she details them going in and the conversation they have, and then suddenly throws in something about one of them being on the bed leaning against the headboard taking a drink, yet she never mentions where the drink comes from, so the film that has been playing in your head has to be rewound and the new detail (which the reader couldn’t have known about) added in.

As for being engaged by fantastic pieces of writing… I’ll agree there are some beautifully crafted sentences, but there is also some very dodgy writing too: a room is described as being “lit by bluish-white electricity” – I know what she means (blueish-white electric light) but surely that sentence is technically incorrect (does electricity have a colour?). And one that made me laugh out loud: “As she passed, his eyes ran over but didn’t acknowledge her”. Bless, eyes on little legs (it was shortly after that I gave up).

But then I didn’t like ‘The Lost Dog’ either, so I’ve concluded that de Kretser is one of those authors (like Peter Carey and John Banville) who for all the plaudits they receive, just aren’t for me.

David, I’m now laughing at the thought of little eyes running around the room! I admit that not all of her descriptions were perfect, but they didn’t bother me in the same way as you seem to have been. I think I’m just used to not taking things literally 🙂

I also agree that the topics weren’t entirely new, but I liked the way she approached them. There was something original in most of the scenes and I think it worked especially well as a whole.

I haven’t read ‘The Lost Dog’ so I’m afraid I can’t compare the two, but I’d still be willing to give it a try based on how much I enjoyed the writing in this one.

I know, it’s the pedant in me 🙂 She used that phrase with eyes running over people a couple of times and although I knew what she meant, it wasn’t a phrase I’d use myself (or recall having heard before) which is why it stuck out. Probably if I had been enjoying the book more I’d have overlooked it but she only needed to make it “his eyes ran over HER but didn’t acknowledge her” and it would have been fine.

I think when I’m not liking a book (and because I hate giving up on them), I sometimes perversely start enjoying finding things wrong with it simply to have a reason to continue reading, which is of course very unfair of me.

David, Actually I do the same, mainly because I need to review the book on the blog. I often keep reading especially to find specific things that annoy me so I can give examples in a review. Not sure I’d do it without the blog though 🙂

Kailana, I wouldn’t normally, but certain bits were very good. The problem was that it was patchy so some parts were excellent and others a bit too meandering for me. I am glad I read it, but also pleased I had other faster paced ones to read along side it.

Being Sri Lankan I’ve got tired of the characters from our diaspora who feel they are hard done by. There are many books written with people like Ravi and after sometime they do get monotonous. Ravi is like the million of emmigrants who do leave their homes for reasons of war.
I would still like to read the book because de Kretser is a good writer but the overwhelming opinion on this one seems to be more on the no rather than the yes!

Mystica, I sympathise with your perspective. I find the same problem with stereotypes of people I’m familiar with too. I haven’t read many books about people from Sri Lanka so those aspects were mainly new to me, but I can understand why you’re keen to find a new angle. I hope you do soon and when you do let me know 🙂

I’ve heard a lot about this book and have been intrigued by it because I love travel so much. But based on your review, I think I might give it a pass. I hate books where nothing happens. Beautiful writing can only get me so far.

tanya, I used to have zero tolerance for books with no plot, but I’m finding I have more tolerance for them as I get older. Perhaps I need to read the really plot heavy books now, before I fall out of love with them?!

Charlie, I’m a big fan of the cover too. The paperback is beautiful. I especially love the purple spine – I’m thinking of using it as inspiration for when I get my bedroom decorated later this year!

I read about this first over at Kinna’s site and was intrigued by what I read, but now I am doubly interested after hearing your take. You know I don’t mind a meandering plot and am generally won over by strong writing above all else, so I do think this is one that is worth me investigating further! And obviously anything that features travel so heavily is going to appeal. 😀

I was very keen to read this, but found the flip flop between characters at the beginning off-putting and I couldn’t remember what had gone before. So I put it down and sadly I never got back to it, though happy to see that it did well.

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