“But imagination had nothing to do with reason: its promise of change came from the same hidden, tidal source as catastrophe and luck. It was a lever that would provide whatever shift Pippa required. There would be cracking open and mess; things would be different, if not necessarily better. After a while, life would return to its monotonous groove.”
The Life To Come is the fifth full-length novel by award-winning Sri Lankan-born Australian author, Michelle de Kretser. This novel in five parts details events in the lives of several Australians: sometimes their lives intersect, sometimes they appear in the background of each other’s stories, sometimes they are sometimes loosely connected. A common character in all parts is Pippa Reynolds, an aspiring author whose journey is followed from student to writer to wife and mother.
George Meshaw is an author who has a minor influence on Pippa’s writing. Sri Lankan-born Ashoka Fernando appears in the wings of Pippa’s story via his girlfriend Cassie, who appears to have a fascination with a certain Tamil shopkeeper. Celeste Harrison is a translator whose life intersects with Pippa’s while Pippa is in Paris working on a novel. Pippa’s own story details her marriage to violinist, Matt Elkinson and certain insecurities which spur her into action. Sri Lankan expatriates, Christabel and Bunty’s lives also intersect with Pippa’s while they are next-door neighbours and become unwitting characters in her most successful novel.
De Kretser gives the reader an abundance of exquisite descriptive prose: “In the moist, grey summer dawns, George felt he was walking into a book he had read long ago” and “In Sydney he recovered lost mornings of steamy grey warmth. The city was regulated and hygienic – occidental – yet voluptuously receptive to chaos and filth. It knew the elemental, antique drama of the sea” and “The light was deep blue and close-woven; whole rows of buildings looked as if they had been cut out with care and glued against the sky” are a few examples.
More samples of too many to include here: “Her memory, a steel plate on which lists of vocabulary, rules governing the subjunctive, and a handful of French poems had been engraved forever, had areas eaten out by rust. Faces fell through it – lately even her mother’s had disappeared” and “The street was the kind where the buildings breathed into each other’s faces, and evening arrived at half-past three” and “The moon rose, and the sea kept running up to the land for a gossip.”
While some scenes in each of the parts appear to echo despite the distinct perspective of the narrators, if the reader is looking for a book where all the stories are completed and issues resolved, where everything tied with a neat bow, then this is not that book. We get glimpses into people’s lives, but not always fully realised ones. Perhaps that is de Kretser’s intention.
As for her characters, the reader can be forgiven for wondering if de Kretser actually likes any of them very much: many are not characters that come across as engaging, not characters the reader will fall in love with, care about, hope for, to any great extent. They are flawed, but not always charmingly so: some are pretentious, quite unlikeable, some are unendearingly quirky, and hard to connect with. But perhaps this is also intentional. De Kretser explores several topical issues: refugees, ostentatious philanthropy, the attitude of Australians abroad, and the state of Australian Literature. She has a unique writing style and this is a compelling read.