BOOKS: Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come. Sarah Kras­nos­tein’s The Trauma Cleaner. Lois Mur­phy’s Soon.

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Pippa used to be Narelle when she lived up north with her mum. She changed her name the day she turned 18 be­cause she was con­vinced that no one named Narelle could ever win the Booker. And Pippa des­per­ately wanted to win the Booker. She still does. For as long as she can re­mem­ber she has wanted to be a writer – a suc­cess­ful writer.

What is the se­cret to self-au­thor­ship? Must we al­ways cut our­selves off from the past in or­der to trans­form the fu­ture? In her mor­dantly funny new novel, her fifth, which also hap­pens to be en­gross­ing and emo­tion­ally pow­er­ful, Michelle de Kretser drama­tises the man­i­fold re­la­tion­ship be­tween nar­ra­tive and iden­tity, be­tween the sto­ries we tell about our­selves and who we re­ally are.

There are five long chap­ters in The

Life to Come, each from the point of view of a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter, but all are densely in­ter­con­nected. In Syd­ney, there’s the phleg­matic but bril­liant Ge­orge, the nov­el­ist last seen in de Kretser’s novella Spring­time.

In Paris, there’s the French-Aus­tralian trans­la­tor Céleste, in­tro­verted and self­doubt­ing and on with a mar­ried woman. There’s Sri Lankan-born Ash, now lead­ing the peri­patetic life of an aca­demic who’s made it. And there’s Christa­bel, an older woman strug­gling to cope with the death of the friend with whom she spent her life.

And then there’s Pippa, the one who knows them all and stands at the cen­tre of this large but mar­vel­lously con­cen­trated novel, the bo­gan who rein­vents her­self as a book­ish bleed­ing heart. She has all the qual­i­ties that a great writer needs, ex­cept tal­ent. Not that she lets this get her down. Isn’t there, she asks, a place in the world for art that is not quite a mas­ter­piece? Isn’t there some­thing no­ble in a near miss, some­thing im­por­tant about fail­ure?

Pippa – with her Mole­sk­ine note­book, her cant about eth­i­cal meats, her love of food porn and her va­pid de­ploy­ment of likes, shares and retweets – is an easy butt for satire, and de Kretser coldly ex­hibits Pippa’s ev­ery hypocrisy and self-de­cep­tion. But there’s af­fec­tion, too, even ad­mi­ra­tion, in this por­trait of an am­bi­tious young hack. Pippa is per­cep­tive, she has guts and en­ergy, and she ra­di­ates a fas­ci­na­tion that sur­vives the au­thor’s ridicule. Even her com­pul­sion to ad­ver­tise her good­ness is more than vanity. Yes, her kind­ness and com­pas­sion are tied up with her ego, but they are real.

Pippa charms al­most ev­ery­one, and is so full of heart she can seem al­most to de­serve the suc­cess she so des­per­ately craves. Maybe that’s why the om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor oc­ca­sion­ally in­trudes to tell us what she – in the most se­cret part of her soul – is re­ally like: “There was a whisper in Pippa’s brain, like a sub­dued, left-hand ac­com­pa­ni­ment to her thoughts, and this whisper was of the opin­ion that Rashida should be grate­ful that white peo­ple over­looked the dou­ble hand­i­cap of her re­li­gion and her race.” She is al­ways on the side of the un­der­dog and the op­pressed, but is dis­con­certed when the un­der­dog fails to re­spect her al­lot­ted rank.

Pippa and her mates blather on about food and cof­fee and the life to come, the heaven of a fu­ture that will surely be theirs. In many ways, Pippa is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a par­tic­u­larly Aus­tralian at­ti­tude. She has turned her back on a shame­ful past and thinks only of her eter­nally bright fu­ture, and yet the past con­tin­ues to in­flu­ence and shape her think­ing, whether she re­alises it or not.

She is the child of those beau­ti­ful youths whom Pa­trick White de­scribes in his es­say “The Prodi­gal Son”: cru­elly op­ti­mistic, star­ing at life through blind, blue eyes. Late in her Paris so­journ, Pippa con­fesses to Céleste that French mu­se­ums de­press her. “What am I meant to feel look­ing at all that stuff ? Paris is so crush­ing.” She breaks a sprig from a hedge and be­gins driv­ing her thumb­nail into each leaf. “I’ll be glad to get back to Syd­ney,” she an­nounces. “Every­thing hasn’t al­ready been done there.”

The ca­su­ally de­stroyed sprig is a mas­ter­stroke. Pippa picks up new friends eas­ily. She wins them with her warm forth­right man­ner, and then drops them when they cease to com­ple­ment the im­age of her­self she wants to project. For the vul­ner­a­ble and the lonely, such as Christa­bel and Céleste, both yearn­ing for in­ti­macy, this neg­li­gence can be crush­ing.

There is no sense of sprawl or bag­gi­ness here, de­spite the pre­sent­ment of so many di­verse lives, all given a his­tor­i­cally de­tailed back­ground. Di­gres­sion piles on di­gres­sion and mi­nor char­ac­ters mul­ti­ply, but al­ways with ab­so­lute clar­ity of pur­pose.

Every­thing is done with such con­ci­sion and con­trol. De Kretser can sug­gest com­plex psy­cholo­gies and pat­terns of thought in only a brief line or two of di­a­logue or in a few in­dica­tive de­tails. Even where stereo­types are re­lied on – a chau­vin­is­tic Parisian or a woman from By­ron Bay with an in­ter­est in aura cleans­ing – there is al­ways speci­ficity, some­thing that ex­ceeds the type.

Yes, de Kretser at­tacks the ma­te­ri­al­ism and triv­i­al­ity, the clos­eted racism and obliv­i­ous­ness of Aus­tralians, but al­ways through the de­pic­tion of sym­pa­thetic hu­man be­ings.

The Life to Come is a re­mark­able achieve­ment. De Kretser won the Miles Franklin Award for her pre­vi­ous ful­l­length novel – Ques­tions of Travel – and she de­serves to win it again for this one.

It’s a book of myr­iad minia­ture over­lap­ping sto­ries, shot through with sub­tle leit­mo­tifs, which bril­liantly cap­tures the ex­pec­tant thrum of a world where the fu­ture is al­ways about to hap­pen.

It is by turns wise and abra­sive, witty and poignant. The fi­nal chap­ter, in par­tic­u­lar, is an ex­tra­or­di­nary evo­ca­tion of how joy and melan­choly min­gle in the wake­ful an­guish of the soul. The Life to Come not only shows us a large cast of char­ac­ters strug­gling to make sense of life, and imag­in­ing a bet­ter one just around the cor­ner, but it also of­fers a pow­er­ful cri­tique of a na­tion that can­not stop dream­ing, which is ra­di­ant and care­less, asleep in the very midst of the ru­ins of a world im­memo­rial. JR

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