Friday, 28 February 2014

Mr B's Reading Year, Three: Lonely, lonely planet

Sadly, my exceptional reading streak had to come to an end some time. (Not that I blame Mr B's in the slightest for this - I frequently choose books for myself that I hate, so it was inevitable I was going to get at least one I disliked in the Reading Year.) I found Questions of Travel pretentious, pointless and almost unreadable, despite the numerous rave reviews that I've read online. This is the first novel I've tried by Michelle de Kretser, and while I think, to be fair, I ought to give her another shot at some point, I don't think that point will be any time soon. This lengthy narrative is divided equally between two viewpoint characters, Laura and Ravi. Laura, an Australian by birth, is essentially disconnected from the world; having given up on art school, she does a series of uninteresting jobs while indulging her passion for travel, alongside running through a number of dead-end relationships. Considered unattractive, she seems incapable of believing that she'll ever find her niche. In contrast, Ravi, resident in Sri Lanka, marries young and seems to have his life mapped out for him. It's only when violent unrest forces him to leave his home village that he takes to the same kind of peripatetic existence that Laura has adopted by choice.

To be honest, even reading the brief synopsis I've just written reminds me why I disliked this book so much. I simply don't understand why anyone would shape a narrative around making such an obvious point: some people choose to travel while others have to travel, and isn't it ironic that privileged Westerners choose to subject themselves to hardship while others have no option? I'm not arguing with the basic truth of the premise, but it doesn't make for anything very thought-provoking. The continual digs at the 'Lonely Planet' style of tourism are both incredibly cliched and very wearing. Laura stays with a Balinese family whom she fails to keep in touch, despite being 'light-headed with schemes' about what she can do for them; this seems to be presented as a profound comment on travellers, but reads to me as nothing more significant than the usual kind of broken promise. Later, in India, she announces to a waiter, 

"I'm going on to Madurai. And to Kanyakumari after that."
"Then Kovalam and Trivandrum," he supplied. "And backwater boat trip and Alleppey and Cochin."
"But how do you know?" cried Laura. She had spent pleasurable hours putting together her itinerary from guidebooks and maps.
He was equally astonished. "All the tourists are going there, madam."

This incident, again, seems to be trying to say something original about the pretentiousness of tourists who fancy themselves as travellers, but I feel like I've read the same exchange many times before. At least as far back as A Room With A View, tourists have been mocked, and it would surely be more original to read something that defends tourism.

Aside from all this, however, I found Questions Of Travel badly-structured and badly-written. The flip-flop between Ravi and Laura meant that I never really felt engaged with either of the characters, especially as there is very little plot. de Kretser has been praised for her prose, but I found the writing frequently poor and plodding, making statements rather than inviting a response, as in this description of Laura: 'She was leading an improvised, peripatetic, rather hectic life. There was the illusion of flight and the safety of tether. Days passed like a sequence of swiftly dealt cards.' I found the unvarying short sentences made for little movement in the narrative, and the descriptions were overwrought. When Ravi is at an outdoors party, 'A vein of lightning opened, and sky showed bright and thin - it was the skin of a balloon seen from the inside… Early evening drizzle had left a vegetable scent in the air. Ravi had an impression of ripeness and branching.' de Kretser is fond of details, such as an 'orange portable TV on a marquetry escritoire' but I found that these simply cluttered the narrative rather than giving any sense of place or character. Not one for me, unfortunately.

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