I read this great big book over a few weeks, interrupted by flu and finished in that slightly hallucinatory state that being ill can bring. The story takes place over several decades from the 1960s to December 2004, and follows the lives of Laura Fraser, Sydneysider and lifelong outsider, and Ravi Mendis, Sri Lankan and only son of a good but struggling family. The chapters loosely alternate between them, and sweep across years and contents in a rich tapestry of place, belonging, and travel. It’s full of liveliness and wandering – a bit like Laura Fraser. She is the outsider, too big, too independent, too wanting, altogether too much. She goes travelling young, full of wanderlust and searching. In fact Laura Fraser is fabulously lusty – for new places, for sex, for food, for experience. There aren’t too many places, geographical and otherwise, she won’t go to, but somehow she is never filled up, never satisfied, never much different, yet grows up matures, learns a thing or two.
Importantly she asks herself repeatedly Why am I here? – a question I think we should all ask at frequent intervals. I wonder if it’s a question asked more often, more deeply, by the displaced, and the out of place amongst us. Questions of Travel distinguishes travel from tourism, from the hungry questing for novelty, for something to take us out of ourselves, perhaps beyond mundane reality. It’s made pretty clear that looking at a place or looking at a people does not mean you know a thing about them, no matter how thoroughly you might purloin their cultural memes or products. As someone says late in the novel, ‘travel never dies, just destinations do’ – ipso facto, the task of tourism is to keep novelty rolling, rolling, rolling.
At another level, looking-at can never approach knowing, and has no hope of equating to the deep, in-your-cells experience of being-from. We see this through the experiences of Laura, who goes all over the planet and learns that travel is learning about yourself. Tourism, by contrast, is a homogenised, pasteurised, packaged and promoted product that has had most of the goodness leached out of it so you are never confronted by anything, least of all yourself. Even so, she ends up working in tourism – it’s what she can do. We learn this too from Ravi Mendis, the other main character, also an outsider, a refugee who’s need for asylum is created by an act of atrocity that sets him outside the everyday goings on of the rest of us, pretty much forever. Overlaid on this intractable trauma is the cultural displacement of being in Australia – poor old Ravi, conscientiously applying his own set of learned social codes and mores is never going to fit in as a ‘proper’ Aussie. Seeing Australia and Australians through his eyes allows us to see the familiar with the sharpness and lack of softening context of foreign sensibility – thus
‘They must grow in Sri Lanka?’ Ravi nodded: ‘Temple Flowers.’ ‘In Australia,’ said Helen, ‘They’re called frangipani.’
This tiny detail, freighted with loss, shows the known world is to be set aside, like an old pair of shoes, and this new world is to be squeezed into, as if it might someday fit.
We get a rendition of Australiania and ockerism in the good-hearted Hazel and her intellectually limited family who take in the homeless Ravi, set against the sharply highlighted complacency that is the well-fed underbelly of Australian life; for example, there is a self-congratulatory undertone in employing a refugee when Ravi is taken on at Ramsay Publications – followed by a muted, semi-conscious annoyance that Ravi is somehow deficient in his refugee status, voiced by the aptly monikered Crystal Bowles:
…. ‘The thing is, I find him a bit creepy. Did I tell you about when I sprang him with this photo of a gorgeous little boy on his screen?’
Ravi Mendis hadn’t worked out quite as Tyler had hoped. He was a nice guy but not the right kind of person; could it be he just wasn’t the right kind of refugee? His coworkers had welcomed him with little bouquets of passion. But the films that were screening in their minds had shown long, dangerous journeys and cyclone wire. Invited to tell us something about yourself at his first general meeting, Ravi had spoken of working in aged care. The only person older than fifty five at Ramsay was Alan. The faces turned towards Ravi suggested that while not personally opposed to old people, his colleagues had expected to hear of suffering.”
The gorgeous little boy is of course,Ravi’s son, of whom Crystal, his co-worker, knows nothing. The job at the old people’s home is life after the atrocity. It’s what he can talk about. His associates at Ramsay, at this point in the story, have known him for a year, but none have bothered to get to know him.
On reading this, one part of me wanted to slap them all, at the thoughtless expectation he would speak of his suffering to a group of unbruised folk who, to his eyes, live like kings and queens. As if. At the same time another part of me recognises the perfectly ordinary, perfectly deadly, everyday indifference we have in our inadequate connections to each other in the midst of busy lives and commonplace stress. These aren’t bad people; these are ordinary people.
I don’t think anyone comes to know anyone very well throughout the whole cast of characters, times and places. Perhaps this speaks to what we’re all looking for – one proper connection with another person (or place)?
I think it’s brilliant writing.
The book is full of threads of observation – luminous little miniatures of humanity at large, whatever the culture, time, gender or aspirations, like an Ershuu painting, or a renaissance fresco.
Plots and subplots abound; woven throughout the depiction of Ramsay, under the guiding hand of Tyler Dean (doesn’t that name sound like a child of the 90s), we see it move from being a company concerned about publishing a good travel guide based on the experienced traveller’s writing, into being a company concerned with market presence, where travel becomes a commodity, it’s content.
Several familiar stereotypes are given an outing in Questions of Travel, but with such a deft and sure hand they seem fresh, and they are hilarious. I love the skewering of the middle-class, socially mobile, spiritual aspirant Tracy Lacey, who might have stepped straight out of Kath & Kim, and Kim-like, names her unfortunate child Destiny. Once an art student with Laura Fraser, she morphs over the years into someone so … silicon … she becomes a thoroughly enjoyable love-to-hate character completely unaware of anything outside her own orbit of want. For example:
“… Destiny Lacey-Buck was bored but not allowed to be. Bored is childhood’s name for the formless, treeless, weather less place from whence it comes: a memory and a presage. But the b word was banned in Paddo. What were the piano lessons and conversazione and swimming classes and Free Expressive Movement for if not to maintain positive energy? As the flash went off, ‘Would you take Destiny up to the roof, darl?’ asked Tracy. ‘Go and look at the boats, gorgeous, big hug, Mummy’s working.’ “
And the poisonous result of all this PC living? This:
” A long time later, when Tracy and Destiny were leaving, the child went unbidden to Laura. She pretended to kiss but placed her mouth very close to the large ear. Very softly and very distinctly, in her light, childish voice, she said ‘Everyone says you’re ugly.’ Destiny’s best friend had said this to her on the last day of school, and Destiny knew it’s power. At the gate, she turned her flower face to Laura and waved. “
Sex is another sub theme – the lusty Laura is readily sexual, in the same way as she is readily indulgent with food. It occurred to me late in the reading, that sex and tourism suffer the same fate in Laura’s life – they should be grand, could be grand, but somehow aren’t. The great loves of her life, such as they are, fail to even begin to meet the promise of soaring passion they could be/should be. And, I had to wonder, what would happen if, instead of being perennially disappointing, one of these affairs did hit the mark? What if the longed for sense of belonging, of being loved into being, did transpire? Then what?
Why am I here? comes to mind.
Author: Karen M
I am a lifelong reader and a more recent writer. I took up the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014, to join all those helping to raise the profile, hopefully worldwide, of our very own fine women writers. I'm doing it again this year because it's still a great cause and there are still a lot of great Australian women's work to read! I'm doing the Franklin again, 10 to be read, six to be reviewed. I found last year, that my reading needs to be free to roam across genres, authors, and all the rest. So, ten books and six reviews might should be manageable and I might even do more :). Reviews of other books that aren't written by Australian women are over at Goodreads ... tho' I'm not nearly so committed to writing them :)