Monday, April 29, 2013

sneak peek: coming to a bookstore near you -- Questions of Travel, by Michelle DeKretser (May 14, US publication date)

Little, Brown and Company, 2013  (US release scheduled for May 14)
480 pp

"To work and suffer is to be at home. All else is scenery."

My many thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers for my kindle copy of this book.

This book will be publishing soon in the US and it's one you may not want to miss.  While I really don't like posting my thoughts on a novel this far away from its publication date, it's already been published elsewhere with many reader reviews, so why not.  Questions of Travel is  a story that moves over decades to examine the two very distinct and conflicted people at the heart of this novel as they make a series of sometimes heartbreaking transitions over their lifetimes. 

With the death of her beloved aunt, and the emotional distance between herself and the other members of her immediate family, Laura begins to feel acutely that something is lacking in her life. While she's lost her closest family tie, her aunt does leave her some money, allowing her to make a move to London.  She also begins to travel, thinking that in some way moving about the globe might take her out of her lonely existence and into something more exciting, or perhaps lead her to find the love or acceptance she's missed out on in her life.  Her desire to travel is  sparked largely by a suitcase left behind by her aunt, filled with souvenirs from her own wanderings.   Laura has no real desire to settle down or put down roots, and while in the UK, takes only the kinds of jobs that allow her great flexibility in her life.  She has a few friends, keeps her possessions down to a manageable level, and enjoys her life there until a friend dies, leading her back to Australia.  There, her background leads her into a job with a company that publishes travel guides where she discovers that the business is less about sharing the spontaneous joys of travel than keeping up with the shallow day-to-day office politics which tie up most of the work day.  The second character,  Ravi, on the other hand, has always been surrounded by a loving family. As a young boy in Sri Lanka, his favorite subject in school was geography; as a man, he married a lovely  woman with whom he had a little boy.  His wife saw firsthand the outrages committed against women during Sri Lanka's terrible civil war, and did not hesitate to speak out so that others would become aware; her work, however, leads to her tragic death. Ravi then discovers that on top of his loss, his own life is in danger and that his physical safety depends on getting out of the country.  He ultimately makes his way to Australia on a tourist visa, but he is really a refugee who must try to piece together some kind of life in this new place, continually torn  between his own survival and the love for the country and people he's left behind.  Both have a number of adjustments to make as they travel through life, but they each come to realize that their respective pasts are always along as their constant companions. 

By exploring the lives of these two people, the author also examines what it is that prompts people to venture out into the world away from home; she also looks at travel as a medium for connecting to people of other cultures and the "invisible things" a tourist might see but which go unnoticed by the locals.  Flight, transition, and overcoming the individual "refugee" experience are  very pronounced themes in this story, as is the question of the relativity of history to the places travelers  pass through as tourists. Ravi, for example, has lived through some of the worst moments in his country's modern existence, while tourists coming to Sri Lanka for the authentic native experience either find their tours  too bleak or else contrived.  The author also makes her readers understand that travel and the technology that takes us where we want to go can have the opposite, isolating  effect -- as both Laura and Ravi discover in their own very different ways.  There are also a number of very mockingly funny and ironic moments in this novel to enjoy.  Obviously, there's so much more to this book; my little scratch on its surface here is only a start.

It is incredibly easy for the reader to become deeply caught up in Ravi's story, but imho, in Laura's life, not so much.  What Ravi has to undergo not only in his own country but upon his arrival in Australia makes him a much deeper, more compelling character than Laura, who seems to me to be much more shallow of a person.  While reading the chapters about Laura, I was always anticipating the move to Ravi's story, not just because of his story, but because it seemed to me that the writing flowed better in these parts. And frankly, to be really honest, I just couldn't care about "poor" Laura.   That's not to say I only liked half the novel, because that's just not the case.  It's just  when reading about a character you just can't bring yourself to find any sympathy for, treading through the thick detail surrounding that person's life is just difficult.   From the perspective of a casual reader, there's much to appreciate in this book; you don't have to have a background in the situation in Sri Lanka (although it's very helpful) to understand where Ravi is coming from, and the overall story is easy to understand without having to pull your hair out at the roots trying to discern what the author's trying to say.  I tend to not want to go through novels with a fine-tooth comb  which for me takes out all of the enjoyment of reading, so if you're looking for a bottom-line good story, you'll like this one.  I have to agree with some other readers who complained about the huge amount of detail that could have been edited out, but beyond that, the story leaves you with much to consider, which is never a bad thing in any book.


  1. Really interesting to read your review of this title as I have been in two minds about it since I have read a few reviews indicating it's a bit ' over engineered / indulgent '.

    1. I really can't seem to get a handle on what people think about this book. There are a number of super-duper ratings and then there are a lot of readers who thought it was awful. I'm somewhere in the middle.


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