Monday, July 29, 2019

"The Life to Come" by Michelle de Kretser

The Life to Come
by Michelle de Kretser

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

It’s that time again - book club! This month, we’re featuring The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser. You can read my review and the opinions of my fellow book clubbers. Please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section below.
I’ll be away for August book club but will be back in September with a new book club selection.

Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, The Life to Come is a mesmerising novel about the stories we tell and don't tell ourselves as individuals, as societies and as nations. It feels at once firmly classic and exhilaratingly contemporary.
Pippa is a writer who longs for success. Celeste tries to convince herself that her feelings for her married lover are reciprocated. Ash makes strategic use of his childhood in Sri Lanka but blots out the memory of a tragedy from that time. Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people.
Profoundly moving as well as wickedly funny, The Life to Come reveals how the shadows cast by both the past and the future can transform, distort and undo the present. This extraordinary novel by Miles Franklin-winning author Michelle de Kretser will strike to your soul.

The house by the river belonged to an old man whose relationship to George Meshaw was complicated but easily covered by ‘cousin’. He had lived there alone, with a painting that was probably a Bonnard. Now he was in a nursing home, following a stroke, and George’s mother had taken charge of the painting. It was her idea that George should live in the house until it was clear whether or not their cousin was coming home. She had flown up to Sydney for the day, and George met her for a late lunch. George’s mother wore a dark Melbourne dress and asked the waiter for ‘Really cold water’, between remarking on the humidity and the jacarandas—you would never guess that she had lived in Sydney for the first thirty-one years of her life. She bent her head over her handbag, and George found himself looking at a scene from childhood. His mother was on the phone, with the orange wall in the living room behind her. As he watched her, she bent forward from the waist, still holding the receiver. Her hair stood out around her head: George saw a dark-centred golden flower. He couldn’t have been more than six but he understood that his mother was trying to block out the noise around her—he folded like that, too, protecting a book or a toy when ‘Dinner!’ was called—and that this was difficult because the room was full of the loud jazz his father liked to play.
Over the years, George’s mother’s hair had been various colours and lengths, and now it was a soft yellow sunburst again, still with that central dark star. She produced a supermarket receipt from her bag and read from the back of it: ‘Hair Apparent. Do or Dye.’
‘The Head Gardener,’ replied George. ‘Moody Hair.’
They were in the habit of noting down the names of hairdressing salons for each other. His mother said, ‘Also, I saw this in an airport shop: “Stainless steel is immune to rust, discoloration and corrosion. This makes it ideal for men’s jewellery.”’
George and his mother had the same high laugh—hee hee hee—and otherwise didn’t resemble each other at all. The Bonnard was beside her, done up in cardboard and propped on a chair. When George asked what it was like, his mother said, ‘A naked woman and wallpaper. He needed an excuse to paint light.’
[Want more? Click below to read a longer excerpt.]

Praise for the Book
Winner of the 2018 Miles Franklin Award
Shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Award
Winner of the 2019 NSW Premier's Literary Awards Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
“I so much admire Michelle de Kretser's formidable technique - her characters feel alive, and she can create a sweeping narrative which encompasses years, and yet still retain the sharp, almost hallucinatory detail.” ~ Hilary Mantel
“Michelle de Kretser knows how to construct a gripping story. She writes quickly and lightly of wonderful and terrible things ... A master storyteller.” ~ A.S. Byatt
“... one of those rare writers whose work balances substance with style. Her writing is very witty, but it also goes deep, informed at every point by a benign and far-reaching intelligence.” ~ Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald
“... a dazzlingly accomplished author who commands all the strokes. Her repertoire stretches from a hallucinatory sense of place to a mastery of suspense, sophisticated verbal artistry and a formidable skill in navigating those twisty paths where history and psychology entwine.” ~ Boyd Tonkin, Independent
“For a novel concerned with dislocation, there's a lot of grounding humor in The Life to Come. Most of it comes at the expense of Pippa and her ilk, but de Kretser's observations are so spot on, you'll forgive her even as you cringe.” ~ New York Times Book Review

Book Clubbers’ Thoughts
Being winter here, most of our book clubbers are off seeking warmer climes. This month, only Jan, Kerrie, and I were present.
Jan: “I got about a third of the way through. I found it wordy, pretentious, and boring. It’s almost as if the author did a writing course and tried to include everything she learned into the book.”
Kerrie: “I had read it before and got it confused with one of her other books, which I did enjoy. I tried to read it again but couldn’t. I did like her descriptions, especially of Glebe – which I am familiar with. Her image of frangipanis on the footpaths is very accurate. I think the title refers to living for the future and not the present, that is, concentrating too much on what you want in the future that you forget to enjoy the now.”
Consensus: Give this one a miss.

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My Review
I bought this book from a bookstore.

By Lynda Dickson
The Life to Come is less a novel and more a collection of five short stories that intertwine and overlap, featuring appearances or mentions of characters met elsewhere, all linked by the central character Pippa.
“The Fictive Self”, set in Sydney, tells the story of George, an aspiring author. He meets Pippa in university. “Pippa had been in his tutorial on ‘The Fictive Self’: a Pass student whose effortful work George had pitied enough to bump up to a Credit at the last moment.” We find out more about the writing careers of both George and Pippa as the book progresses.
“The Ashfield Tamil”, also set in Sydney, centers on Cassie, who is “writing a thesis on Australian expatriate novelists”, and her Sri Lankan born boyfriend Ash. Cassie went to school with Pippa, and they are still in touch.
“The Museum of Romantic Life”, set in Paris, introduces us to Celeste, a translator who meets Pippa at an exhibition at the Australian Embassy during the period when Pippa starts writing a new novel set in Paris.
In “Pippa Passes”, we finally get the story from Pippa’s point of view.
This is as far as I got (67% of the way in) when Book Club met. I really wanted to like this book but, if I hadn’t been reading it for Book Club, I would have given up much earlier. Pippa, who is the linking character, is an acquired taste, a do-gooder who butts into everyone’s business. There are numerous other characters, each with no redeeming features. I didn’t care what happened to any of them, and nothing happens anyway, which makes it hard to continue reading. In addition, the author has the annoying tendency of introducing characters and only naming them later, making the narrative hard to follow. She also tries too hard to be “literary” and, as a result, suffers from the same maladies she makes fun of:
“… the meaning of each word was clear and the meaning of sentences baffled. Insignificant yet crucial words like ‘however’ and ‘which’—words whose meaning was surely beyond dispute—had been deployed in ways that made no sense.”
“George detected a borrowing: Pippa had come across the word somewhere and been impressed.”
That being said, there are some great descriptive passages, with the author having a particular fondness of anthropomorphizing the scenery:
“Brick bungalows cowered at the base of the cliff and skulked on the ridge above—it seemed an affront for which they would all be punished.”
She also makes astute observations on
Australian literature: “After some difficulty, a professor who would admit to having once read an Australian novel was found.”),
the media: “… the national broadcaster—a viper’s nest of socialists, tree-huggers and ugly, barren females—had seized on the survey, exhuming one of its bleeding-heart ideologues to moan about funding cuts to education.”,
politics: “Education being a trivial portfolio, the minister, a golden boy, had also been entrusted with Immigration.”,
race: “He was a Jaffna Tamil, he said. ‘But here no one knows who we are. What to do?’ Cassie was familiar with this kind of thing. Her grandmother had grown up in Vienna, and laments about Australian ignorance circulated readily with the torte.”,
character: “People often remarked that Pippa and Cassie were like sisters. That was quite true in the sense that each girl kept track of, rejected and coveted whatever belonged to the other.”,
Australians: “Australians are hard-working and very successful. They are suspicious of their success and resent it. They are winners who prefer to see themselves as victims. Their national hero, Ned Kelly, was a violent criminal—they take this as proof of their egalitarianism. They worship money, of course.”,
and the passage of time (these last quotes linking back to the book’s title):
“What was coming was a life in which his father was a stranger.”
“… when Ash thought of Australia it seemed to belong less to his past than to a time to come, luminous and open-ended.”
“Australians are ashamed of the past. You have no choice but to look forward.”
“Pippa, looking forward, saw a life that had drained away in the service of novels no one wanted to read.”
Warnings: coarse language, sexual references.

Some of My Favorite Lines
“George looked on cooking as time stolen from books.”
“George’s own novel sang inside him. He was taking apart everything he knew and putting it back together differently in ruled A4 notebooks.”
“The sun rose over the misty park: an autumn sun, a flat red disc that had strayed from a Japanese print.”
“I wish I could be a successful writer because then I wouldn’t have to want to be a successful writer.”
“Silently CĂ©leste recited words that meant Australia: sport, veranda, up yourself, teenagers with braces, little battler, the peppercorn tree, provincial touchiness, provincial kindness, dirty wog. Each one was a scene dense with detail, lit in a distinctive way.”

About the Author
Michelle de Kretser was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her family emigrated to Australia when she was a teenager, and she was educated in Melbourne and Paris. She is the author of four previous novels - including the Miles Franklin Award-winning Questions of Travel and the Man Booker Prize-longlisted The Lost Dog - and a novella, Springtime. De Kretser now lives in Sydney with her partner, the poet and translator, Chris Andrews. She is an Honorary Associate of the English Department at the University of Sydney.


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