Tag Archives: The Life to Come

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser: The way we live now

Cover imageLast year’s reading got off to a very satisfying start with a book by an Australian author – Jennifer Down’s compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely debut, Our Magic Hour. Coincidentally, this year’s has also begun with a beautifully crafted, thoroughly engaging Australian novel. I’d read and enjoyed Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel a few years ago but The Life to Come feels like a much more ambitious novel to me, managing to be both funny and poignant as it examines the state of modern Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one woman.

The novel opens in the 1990s with George, an aspiring novelist, taking over a house left empty by an elderly cousin. When he bumps into an old student from his tutoring days in need of somewhere to live, he offers her a room. Pippa espouses all the right ideas but seems incapable of living by them, constantly spouting earnest platitudes. When she declares an ambition to become a novelist, George can barely conceal his sneer. Several years later, Cassie unburdens herself to Pippa over coffee. Cassie has fallen in love with Ash – half-Scottish, half Sri Lankan – but it’s clear that she wants a very different relationship from the one he’s prepared to offer. Pippa seems too caught up in her own annoyance at finding only one copy of her novel in a bookshop to offer much consolation. Soon she will be in Paris, awarded a residency to work on her next novel, where she becomes friends with Céleste who grew up in Australia and now works as a translator when not yearning after her married lover, Sabine. Céleste finds herself unexpectedly missing Pippa when she goes home, despite worrying that she might make an appearance as one of Pippa’s characters. Pippa’s novels continue to be relentlessly autobiographical, her husband’s imagined affair and its consequences offering material for the next one. In the book’s final section, Pippa befriends her elderly Sri Lankan neighbour, inviting her to tea with every appearance of solicitude beneath which lurks an ulterior motive. The novel ends with a literary festival which hosts both Pippa and George.

Pippa is the glue that holds the novel’s episodic structure together. Through the stories of Pippa’s friends and acquaintances, de Kretser deftly explores modern life with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour. Barbs are tossed at a multitude of modern obsessions, from social media – which often felt like reading my own Twitter timeline – to faddish food. Frantic virtue signalling in the shape of Eva who never misses the chance to parade her support for ethnic diversity is neatly counterbalanced by the casual racism that her husband demonstrates, a theme which runs through the novel. The literary festival scenes towards the end are particularly amusing, and perhaps heartfelt. Throughout it all, de Kretser’s penetrating observation and mordant humour is underpinned with compassion, most movingly so in the final section which explores the loneliness of old age. This is a fine novel: perceptive and intelligent, sharp yet humane. I’ll be astonished if it’s not on my books of the year list next December.

Books to Look Out for in January 2018: Part One

Cover imageRound about now at the fag-end of the literary year, I begin to look forward eagerly to what’s coming next. The first batch of goodies kick starting this January is dominated by Australian writers, beginning with a new Peter Carey which is always something worth looking out for. A Long Way from Home is set in 1953 when the Bobbseys arrive in Bacchus Marsh, Australia. Their neighbour Willie soon becomes drawn into their orbit, persuaded to be their navigator on the Redex Trial, a car race that circumnavigates the continent. ‘As they drive into unknown territory, and cross the outback, Willie will discover the heartrending truth about his own and his country’s past’ say the publishers which sounds very promising.

Less well-known outside Australia than Carey, Helen Garner also has a book out in January. Stories: Collected Short Fiction is being issued in celebration of her seventy-fifth birthday and comprises short stories ‘all told with her characteristic sharpness of observation, honesty and humour. Each one a perfect piece, together they showcase Garner’s mastery of the form’ according to the publishers. I’ve only read The Spare Room but my memories of that are of clean, crisp prose so I have my eye out for this collection.

Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come covers many geographical miles taking its readers from Sydney to Paris and Sri Lanka following three people: Pippa, a writer; Celeste embroiled in an affair and Ash who suffered a tragedy in childhood. ‘Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people… …a mesmerising novel [which] feels at once firmly classic and exhilaratingly contemporary’ say the publishers, covering all the bases. I remember very much enjoying de Kretser’s Questions of Travel a few years back.

Around the world to the American South for Eleanor Henderson’s The Twelve Mile Straight, set in Georgia in 1930 where a man is lynched for allegedly raping a white sharecropper’s daughter who has given birth to twins, one clearly white, the other suspiciously brown. Surrounded by gossip, Elma brings up her babies helped by her father and the young black housekeeper who is as close to her as a sister. ‘It soon becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have imagined. A web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the truth’ say the publishers, hinting at all manner of things. This one could easily backfire but it’s such an intriguing premise, a little reminiscent of Laird Hunt’s The Evening Road which I enjoyed very much,  and it’s much praised by Ann Patchett, apparently.

That’s it for the first selection of January’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any take your fancy. Second batch to follow shortly, all with their feet firmly planted in the UK.