Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A chair threatened, bougainvillea clawed

How is it that great, wide books like this one exhaust me? I spend all day, all night, running just ahead of the converging tides. The adage, I couldn't put it down, should always be a compliment except that when uttered by some, like me, it will also be an admission of a failure of nerve: that I only read Questions of Travel thus because it was too difficult to savour it in any other way.

De Kretser's novel is as beautifully written as it is also vivid, encroaching. It swells along with one of its protagonists, Laura, and, by the end of it, the sea -- the very girth of the world. The hallucinatory, the rotting real, the worthless but moving detritus of cheap bead bracelets, red crystal tea light holders, socks with stilettos and paintings of teary cherubs, find their digital doublings and treblings in the growth -- and death -- of brightly made web pages. The book's other protagonist, Ravi, as if only in proportion to this monstrous excess, shrinks, his expertise hollowing out as his grief for his murdered wife and son in Sri Lanka scours each day that he lives.

Questions of Travel is also a book placed carefully in its Sydney undulations. It is at once suggestive of the resonant land, sky and seascapes of early Christina Stead as well as a myriad of Patrick White, set here and elsewhere, whose anarchic, rhetorical splendour is recognisable immediately in such lines as:

A shuttered villa flanked by cypress candles might have been only hostile if it hadn't called up the brittle modern heroines, bravely rouged, of doomed Katherine Mansfield.

It was one of those days when her soft yellow moustache was in evidence.

Paul Hinkel was navigating past dangers. A chair threatened, bougainvillea clawed.

The Whitely loomed: one of his bulging female landscapes, all rusty buttocks and rock. Laura could have vanished into it.

There are many questions of travel, all of them opening one into the other -- from the perspective of the Ravis, Varunikas and Nimals as much as from the Lauras -- and yet the dark unanswerable sound that E. M. Forster made central to the 1924 edition of his novel is there, too, in the vast material press of a world that exceeds understanding: the world as it is becoming for Laura's age-addled father, and as it became for her friend Theo, whose child Laura didn't want to have, and whose taste for kitschy clutter and drink and the recounted trauma of his mother rose up to choke him.

I will have to sleep off this one.

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