Plaudits bring less confidence
Despite a string of prizes, each novel is like starting over for Michelle de Kretser, Rosemary Neill reports
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.
I still feel like I am passing through’: Michelle de Kretser at home in Melbourne