Thursday, 2 August 2018

Michelle de Kretser's The life to come

We chose Michelle de Kretser's The life to come as our July book for a couple of reasons. One is that it had just been longlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award (it has now been shortlisted), but mostly it was because we like her work.

It's an intriguing book. It comprises five parts, each telling the story of a different set of characters. However, one character, the novelist Pippa, appears in each part, providing a narrative thread that holds the book together. The main characters are Australian, Sri Lankan, English and French.

First impressions

As always, we started with first impressions from the meeting attendees, which, to summarise were:
  • it was slow to get into, but became more interesting, more enjoyable, as the book progressed
  • it engrossed from the start but tailed off a bit in the middle
  • it went on a bit in places but was enjoyable overall
  • the last part featuring Christabel was particularly sad
  • Pippa was an irritating character, which spoilt the book
  • Pippa was a well-drawn character even if she wasn't the nicest one!
  • de Kretser gets into her characters' heads very well
  • de Kretser has a wonderful sense of place, particularly of Sydney
  • the book's non-linear narrative was interesting. It felt impressionistic, a bit like a painter throwing strong colours around, but Pippa worked well as a connecting link between the separate stories
  • the humour was good, though de Kretser's targeting of left-wing middle-class people sometimes came a bit close to home!
  • the "life to come" theme was interestingly explored through the various characters, such as Cassie who wondered how she was to live; Celeste who saw her future shrinking to a lonely old age; Christabel who was looking for the moment when her life would be transformed; and Pippa who, initially at least, saw her future as bright and positive.
We then discussed some of the meanings we gleaned from the book, and decided that one of the main themes was that of dashed expectations. This, said one member, was very Beckett - as was heralded by the opening epigram from his Endgame. Christabel's father, another reminded us, philosophised to her that "what isn't done, isn't done".

Culture and nationality

Another over-riding theme in the book relates to culture and nationality, to the way we view other cultures, the way we stereotype each other, the assumptions we make about each other. While the theme of dashed expectations provided some of the book's most poignant or sad moments, this one underpinned much of its satire - and thus provided much of the humour. (Even if sometimes that humour became uncomfortably close to home!)

Our discussion flitted around somewhat, but we did discuss each of the main parts of the book during the evening: Part 2 "The Ashfield Tamil" about Ash and Cassie; Part 3 "The museum of romantic life" about Celeste and Sabine; Part 4 "Pippa Passes" about Pippa and her in-laws; and Part 5 "Olly Faithful" about Christabel and Bunty. We found some of these stories very sad, particularly Christabel's.

We all felt that Pippa's mother-in-law, Eva, was a wonderfully drawn character. She "likes rescuing things", says her husband. For example, she employs refugees from a "not-for-profit catering group" to serve food at her parties, while wearing "garments stiffened with embroidery and beads. At throat and wrists she wore silver set with gems, some the colour of butter, others the colour of blood. These tribal ornaments lit Eva's face, and proclaimed her solidarity with the wretched of the earth."

In another example, Eva's osteopath Rashida, who is also a Muslim Indian immigrant, is dining with Eva and her family. They quiz her about her background:

'My parents thought that India wasn't the best place for Muslims,' said Rashida. 'I love these potato pancakes, Eva. Could I have the recipe?
'Were you persecuted for your faith?' Eva asked, hushed and hopeful.
'Not really.'
Keith [Eva's husband] said, 'So you were privileged migrants.'
Rashida said nothing. She seemed to be turning the sentence over in her mind, trying to work out its shape.

Story or history

Another issue that runs through the book relates to history and the past, and to the idea of stories. For some, history and story are very different concepts, but to Pippa the line is very faint. It's all story to her. She's the novelist mining other people's stories for her novels.

Ash (in Part 2, The Ashfield Tamil), however, born of a Scottish mother and Sir Lankan father, knows the difference between history and story. Partner Cassie, who is "postmodernly tutored", thinks history is "just a set of competing stories" but Ash understands exactly "the historical sequence that ... brought a Tamil civil servant to the counter of a shop in the west of Sydney."

Our cultural confusion is mocked frequently in the novel. We enjoyed Pippa's comment to Christabel on dining out with her literary agent:

We went to this amazing new Asian place at Darling Harbour. It's been quite controversial because they do live sashimi. But Gloria and I talked about it, the cruelty aspect, and we decided it was Japanese cultural tradition so it was OK.

Somewhat related to the idea of stories is the role played by social media in modern lives. De Kretser skewers the curated self of modern life though her sharing of Pippa's activity on Twitter.


Not surprisingly, the character we talked most about was Pippa. Most felt that at the beginning she was young, a little naive, and likeable, but that as the novel progressed, as she "used" and/or was insensitive to character after character, particularly to CĂ©leste and Christabel, she became the character who stood for the worst aspects of modern Australian life and culture.

Here, however, is her, still young and getting to know the man she married, Matt:

Sydney before Matt was the view from a car speeding through fog. By the time he and Pippa had been together a year, even that memory had faded and vanished from the sky.  It amazed her how quickly everything had fled into the past. ... It was as if, not having much common history to carry into the future, they needed to stock up fast.

 A novel or a collection of stories?

We also discussed briefly the form of the "novel". Is it a novel, one member asked, or a collection of stories. Except for Pippa's appearance in every part, each part is self-contained. We commented that we were sorry when each part ended, but fortunately, it seemed that we enjoyed each part equally well. At least, I don't recollect any discussion about preference for one part over another. They were all strong - as was de Kretser's writing. We admired her ability to capture people, places and ideas, so expressively but so succinctly too.

We didn't necessarily resolve the "is it a novel" question, but most of us felt it didn't matter. Whatever it was, we had enjoyed the novel.

Present: 8 (with three apologies)