Plau­dits bring less con­fi­dence

De­spite a string of prizes, each novel is like start­ing over for Michelle de Kretser, Rose­mary Neill re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

MICHELLE de Kretser’s first novel, The Rose Grower , fo­cused on love, roses and the French revo­lu­tion and be­came an in­ter­na­tional best­seller. Her sec­ond novel, The Hamil­ton Case , set in her birth­place, Sri Lanka, took out the sought- af­ter Tas­ma­nia Pa­cific Prize and the Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers Prize ( for the South­east Asia and Pa­cific re­gion). Time mag­a­zine called The Hamil­ton Case ‘‘ a per­fect novel’’, and The New York Re­view of Books de­scribed it as ‘‘ a daz­zling per­for­mance’’, while The New York Times en­thused that The Rose Grower ’ s prose was ‘‘ crisp, el­e­gant ( and) com­pas­sion­ate’’.

One may as­sume such plau­dits would have the Melbourne- based au­thor feel­ing vaguely con­fi­dent about her latest novel, The Lost Dog, short­listed last month for the South­east Asia and South Pa­cific sec­tion of the Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers Prize, to be an­nounced next Thurs­day. But the op­po­site is true. De Kretser says the praise and prizes her nov­els have at­tracted ‘‘ in­crease un- con­fi­dence, if that is the word’’. When her sec­ond novel was re­leased, she was wor­ried it wouldn’t live up to the suc­cess of the first. Now she is un­easy that The Lost Dog — to be pub­lished in Aus­tralia, the US, Bri­tain and Italy — won’t match the achieve­ments of The Hamil­ton Case . ‘‘ The only thing I know at the end of a novel is how to write that novel; that knowl­edge doesn’t trans­fer across to the next one,’’ she says soberly.

An­other rea­son for de Kretser’s trep­i­da­tion is that The Lost Dog is her first con­tem­po­rary novel and her first to be set in Aus­tralia: ‘‘ That was scary. That was pro­foundly scary be­cause I hadn’t done it be­fore and with my two pre­vi­ous nov­els, set in France and Cey­lon, the main read­ers were not go­ing to come from th­ese coun­tries. I was haunted by my own lit­er­ary past in the writ­ing of this novel, in a funny way.’’ Funny, be­cause be­ing haunted by the past is one of The Lost Dog’s prin­ci­pal themes.

As the ti­tle sug­gests, The Lost Dog — at once a mys­tery, love story and med­i­ta­tion on moder­nity and old age — re­volves around a dog that goes miss­ing in dense bush­land. As pro­tag­o­nist Tom Lox­ley scours the scrub for his beloved pet, he sets off on an in­ward jour­ney of re­mem­brance and self- ex­am­i­na­tion. Tom, an An­glo- In­dian who moved to Aus­tralia as a boy, is now a di­vorced and rather soli­tary aca­demic, fin­ish­ing a book about Henry James. He has a some­times ex­as­per­at­ing re­la­tion­ship with his ail­ing mother, Iris, and a bur­geon­ing crush on Nelly Zhang, an artist who takes pho­tos of her paint­ings be­fore ap­par­ently de­stroy­ing the orig­i­nal art­works.

As Tom draws closer to Nelly, he dis­cov­ers that her ex- hus­band, who worked for an in­vest­ment bank, dis­ap­peared in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances and that the enig­matic Nelly may be im­pli­cated.

Clearly, de Kretser rel­ishes a good mys­tery: the mur­der of a white planter in 1930s Cey­lon pulses away at the cen­tre of her colo­nial who­dunit, The Hamil­ton Case . ( She is a fan of de­tec­tive fiction and television po­lice pro­ce­du­rals.)

But de Kretser is no for­mula- driven genre writer; both The Hamil­ton Case and The Lost Dog are steeped in am­bi­gu­ity, leav­ing the reader with a sense that the past and the truth are some­how fugi­tive, never wholly gras­pable.

As de Kretser puts it: ‘‘ Some­times it is dif­fi­cult for peo­ple them­selves to un­der­stand what has gone on ( in the past), and they keep rein­ter­pret­ing and rein­vent­ing their own sto­ries. In some ways, I hope the book comes across as a mod­ern ghost story.’’

Not only does the past stalk the present in The Lost Dog, ab­sences, par­tic­u­larly that of the un­named dog, are acutely felt. De Kretser is a ded­i­cated dog per­son, so much so she has ded­i­cated The Lost Dog to Gus, her age­ing English set­ter- fox­hound cross- breed who died re­cently af­ter a long bat­tle with arthri­tis. ‘‘ He couldn’t get through the win­ter,’’ she says sadly. ( She has two other dogs, Oliver and Min­nie, both ‘‘ of un­cer­tain breed’’.)

De Kretser, 50, moved to Aus­tralia when she was 14 and speaks in such a re­fined Bri­tish ac­cent, you’d swear she was an Oxbridge grad­u­ate. On the page, her lush prose and philo­soph­i­cal riffs sug­gest a search­ing in­tel­lect. Dur­ing our two- hour in­ter­view, her care­ful, cere­bral an­swers even­tu­ally give way to some­thing more sup­ple and earthy. She holds forth on ev­ery­thing from the sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance of hu­man fae­ces to a ‘‘ cool, post­mod­ern and ba­si­cally use­less’’ pen­cil skirt she bought while hav­ing trou­ble walk­ing be­cause of back pain.

As she wrote The Lost Dog, de Kretser was emerg­ing from a long pe­riod of in­tense pain caused by a slipped disc. The in­jury was so se­vere that at one point she couldn’t walk and was hos­pi­talised. ‘‘ Which th­ese days is like, se­ri­ous,’’ she jokes. ‘‘ Go­ing into hospi­tal, fi­nally, was a blessed re­lief be­cause it meant pro­fes­sional peo­ple were look­ing af­ter me.’’ Un­til then it had been up to her part­ner, aca­demic and poet Chris An­drews, to shop, cook, change the sheets and help her get to the bath­room.

Her in­jury was de­clared in­op­er­a­ble but she has since found re­lief through hy­drother­apy and the Alexan­der tech­nique. She re­mem­bers vividly the first time she ex­pe­ri­enced 60 sec­onds with­out pain af­ter months of en­dur­ing it.

More re­cently, she has taken up Pi­lates, but not be­fore she had an ar­gu­ment with her­self about em­brac­ing some­thing so trendy. ‘‘ I thought, ‘ Any­thing Brad and An­gelina have em­braced can’t be right for me’, but the hideous thing is, they were right, it re­ally does work,’’ she says with a chuckle. ‘‘ Maybe there is a great novel out there about Pi­lates and I just haven’t read it.’’

The pain she had to tough out found its way into The Lost Dog: the pro­tag­o­nist’s el­derly mother, Iris, suc­cumbs to im­mo­bil­ity and in­con­ti­nence. ‘‘ I am some­one who lived the life of the mind and sud­denly my body took over and was very present,’’ de Kretser ex­plains. ‘‘ I am also in­ter­ested in what it is that dis­gusts us, what pro­vokes dis­gust.’’ Be­cause it is syn­ony­mous with de­cay and is the an­tithe­sis of the me­dia’s ide­al­i­sa­tion of youth, ‘‘ old age is one of the things we find threat­en­ing. Old peo­ple are of­ten con­sid­ered dis­gust­ing,’’ she de­clares.

De Kretser turned to writ­ing rel­a­tively late. The Rose Grower was pub­lished when she was in her 40s, and she started de­scrib­ing her­self as a nov­el­ist only af­ter The Hamil­ton Case was pub­lished in 2003. ‘‘ I am not some­one who from a very young age wanted to be a writer,’’ she re­veals. ‘‘ I am not some­one who thought in those terms.’’ Though an avid reader as a child, she thought of writ­ers as be­ing old, dead or from far away. ‘‘ I was al­ways a reader and some­one who has al­ways been deeply, deeply in­volved with books. I grew up in a coun­try where there was no television, so books were the main form of en­ter­tain­ment.’’

She says of her re­cently ac­quired lit­er­ary iden­tity: ‘‘ It still feels as­ton­ish­ing. I never take it for granted.’’ Nor has her head been turned by the clutch of lit­er­ary gongs she has won. Last year she went to Ger­many to col­lect an­other for The Hamil­ton Case , the LiBer­atur award for an out­stand­ing pub­li­ca­tion by a wo­man, which she in­sists was ‘‘ not a big deal at all’’.

She feels ‘‘ crazy luck’’ is in­volved in win­ning a lit­er­ary prize and that only a ‘‘ blind ego­ist’’ would be­lieve their prize- win­ning book was the best of any short list. ‘‘ It is cru­cial to re­mem­ber that they are a huge lot­tery. A dif­fer­ent group of judges on a dif­fer­ent day when a dif­fer­ent set of books is pub­lished . . . Come on.’’

As for the re­views, many of them raves, her fiction has at­tracted, she says: ‘‘ What I found with The Rose Grower is that flat­ter­ing re­views make you feel great and neg­a­tive re­views make you feel bad. Nei­ther of th­ese feel­ings helped make me a bet­ter writer.’’ A some­time book reviewer her­self, she hastily adds that this job pro­vides a vi­tal ser­vice for read­ers. ( Early re­views for The Lost Dog have been mixed.)

Crit­ics like to clas­sify de Kretser as a post­colo­nial nov­el­ist.

‘‘ Oooh, what would I say to that?’’ she pon­ders. ‘‘ In one sense I think that ev­ery read­ing con­structs a new novel, and if other peo­ple see that in them, why not? I don’t feel af­fronted by the la­bel or any­thing like that, but I don’t think it’s the fo­cus of this novel. I am a post- colo­nial per­son in the sense that I was born in a coun­try which be­came post- colo­nial. I sup­pose I will carry that with me to the end of my days.’’

De­spite spend­ing most of her life in Melbourne, she still doesn’t feel com­pletely at home there: ‘‘ I still feel like I am pass­ing through sim­ply be­cause I didn’t spend the first 14 years of my life here. There is still that sense of not en­tirely be­long­ing, in the sense that some­one who was born in a place be­longs.’’ But she doesn’t have that re­as­sur­ing sense of home in Sri Lanka, ei­ther. ( Her ex­tended fam­ily had left the is­land na­tion by the time her im­me­di­ate fam­ily did, in the early 1970s.)

De Kretser says that through The Lost Dog, ‘‘ I wanted to show a mul­ti­cul­tural Aus­tralia that was work­ing very well, in one sense’’. While her chief char­ac­ters are of Asian her­itage, ‘‘ they don’t spend hours ev­ery day angst­ing about it. It is a kind of un­self­con­scious­ness and a lot of the time Aus­tralia does func­tion in that sort of way. I’ve never lived in a place where so many peo­ple have come from such dis­parate cor­ners of the globe and I think that is a won­der­ful thing.’’

Nev­er­the­less, she be­lieves this ac­cep­tance of new ar­rivals has been miss­ing from the big­ger po­lit­i­cal pic­ture. The Lost Dog is set in late 2001, a pe­riod that pro­duced the Tampa and chil­dren over­board af­fairs.

‘‘ The way the ALP sup­ported the Coali­tion view of the Tampa was re­ally shock­ing and dis­tress­ing for many peo­ple,’’ she notes.

Be­fore she be­came a nov­el­ist, de Kretser taught lit­er­a­ture and worked as an ed­i­tor for travel pub­lisher Lonely Planet. The youngest of four chil­dren and daugh­ter of a judge, she had a mid­dle- class ‘‘ though not grand’’ up­bring­ing in Sri Lanka. Her fa­ther died 20 years ago; her mother just a few months back, but she is re­luc­tant to talk about her fam­ily. ‘‘ There are no se­crets to do with me,’’ she adds brightly and, in­deed, much of her con­ver­sa­tion has a can­dour laced with play­ful self- dep­re­ca­tion.

She ad­mits she is a ro­man­tic about the place of lit­er­a­ture in the broader cul­ture, of­ten find­ing writ­ers fes­ti­vals ‘‘ dis­tress­ingly naked ex­er­cises in mar­ket­ing’’. ‘‘ I might be ro­man­tic and naive, but I do want to think of lit­er­a­ture as a dif­fer­ent place, where other rules and val­ues per­tain.’’ She feels lit­er­a­ture and the mar­ket ‘‘ are un­easy bed­fel­lows’’ but also jokes that ‘‘ I’d love to knock Harry Pot­ter off his perch . . . Look I am com­pletely tainted by the mar­ket. I live in a con­sumerist so­ci­ety and I like a good shop and I like books as ob­jects, the look and the feel and the smell.

‘‘ But I want lit­er­a­ture, at some level, to re­sist com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion. I do think there needs to be a place where lit­er­a­ture is seen as some­how dif­fer­ent from the purely mer­can­tile.’’ The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser, Allen & Un­win, $ 35.

Pic­ture: Richard Cisar- Wright

I still feel like I am pass­ing through’: Michelle de Kretser at home in Melbourne

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