Michelle de Kretser’s “The Life to Come” is an engaging and profound account of the lives of a loosely connected group of people, some of them with links to Sri Lanka, all of them with links to Australia. She ranges effortlessly from acute psychological insights into the minutiae of our inner lives, to acerbic commentary on social issues. An ongoing theme is “the fictive self”, the title of the first of the five parts of the novel, which in overall terms concerns itself with our efforts to construct a life that has meaning for ourselves and in the eyes of others.
Much of the novel is based in Sydney, the rest in France or Sri Lanka. The characters include immigrants, expatriates and Anglo-Australians, some with a sense of life at the margins, others immersed in their own importance. Many of the characters have a direct involvement in the world of books, including two novelists, a translator, and a postgraduate student in literature. All of the main protagonists are well educated readers. The one character who recurs in each of the five parts is Pippa Reynolds, a novelist struggling for recognition against her own suspicions that her writing is mediocre. However she plays only a minor role in some sections of the book.
Sydney has a starring role in de Kretser’s writing, as she delivers a sense of place from different perspectives that is reminiscent of Patrick White (for example in “The Eye of the Storm”). White is referred to in the novel, as is Christina Stead, another pioneering Australian novelist who creates a vibrant sense of Sydney. Some of the description is lyrical, at other times it delivers the grubby facts of city life. So for Pippa, a country girl, “In Sydney everything was strange: noises, intersections, buildings, views. Someone had put a dimmer switch on the stars.” And again, more darkly: “The city’s beauty, like its money, was self-important, calculated to stun. It judged all who came its way according to silent, iron rules. If your were not rich, you were nothing: that was the first rule.” For Christabel, on the other hand, a neighbour of Pippa’s from Sri Lanka, Sydney shone: “Earlier, rain had exploded, and now every scraggy callistemon was wrapped in brilliant, watery light.”
Much of de Kretser’s writing pulsates with poetic touches, arriving unexpectedly and quite often in conjunction with a satirical passage. Satire is employed with a sharp cutting edge in this novel, sending up aspects of Australian culture, from casual racism and gormless Aussie tourists, to the overwhelming sense of entitlement that has arisen in recent times on the back of an extended mining boom and the tail end of a second hand empire. The satirical edge is particularly sharp where Australian life contrasts with the realities of life in countries like Sri Lanka, torn apart by civil strife, or for that matter in the Old World. Céleste, a friend of Pippa’s who grew up in Australia but has returned to France, asks her mother why their Australian relatives are obsessed with food, and her mother replies: “Because they live in a country of no importance.”
The novel ends on an elegaic note with the fifth section, which is the longest, and features the lives of Christabel and her friend Bunty, from their childhoods in Sri Lanka to their lives as immigrants living in Sydney. They reach old age together in reduced circumstances, Christabel caring for Bunty as she descends into dementia, and trying to cope with the overwhelming sense of a life at the margins of all she had hoped for. This section contains some of de Kretser’s finest writing, giving ordinary lives greater intensity than those who feel themselves to be superior to people like Christabel. Here, in places, de Kretser has Patrick White’s gift for depicting blunt, ordinary lives and the depths that often dwell beneath. Although she is highly intelligent, Christabel has no obvious attainments, no influential friends or relatives, and no money. One of the people who feel superior to her is Pippa, who offhandedly (and inaccurately) stereotypes Christabel in one of her novels as “a closet lesbian with a mannish face.” Pippa’s betrayal leaves Christabel with the sensation that she was “only a minor character on the margins of the lives that mattered.” In some ways, this is the climax of a novel that has no beginning and no end, but journeys circuitously through a series of disconnected tales to very great effect.
Author: Michelle de Kretser
Title: The Life to Come
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017