‘The Life to Come’ by Michelle de Kretser
Like Michelle de Kretser’s other Miles Franklin winner, Questions of Travel, her sixth novel works its plot around a set of questions. Here they turn on how to shape a life for oneself and for others. The Life to Come consists of five precise, ample slices of life, stretching from youth to old age, and features a large cast. Pippa, a mid-list writer, unites their stories; though not always the central character, she moves through them with a disarming but brutal naivety.
The setting is mostly Sydney, but we have come to expect that de Kretser’s characters will live across geographies and cultures. A lonely woman in Paris; two ageing émigré spinsters; white old-money Australians; a Sri Lankan shopkeeper; a Muslim osteopath: all possess lives ripe with backstory, and some have been touched by historical barbarities.
Throughout they tweet, Facebook and Skype, write novels and wait for letters. The novel suggests that these technologies – whether banal or engaging – are the medium through which we fashion ourselves but also try to keep the existential void at bay.
Although de Kretser likes her social archetypes, this is not quite satire; and, while her descriptions of place and human contradiction are pinpoint, The Life to Come is not quite realism either. Instead, she renews Patrick White’s tragicomic vision, offering loving homage to it in her beautiful but wounding Sydney, and the wasted but profound lives of Pippa’s elderly neighbours in the book’s final section. Though less cruel, de Kretser’s no slouch herself at the funny-appalling, hinting throughout that Pippa, in her smug sense of remove from global matters, may be the dominant Australian type.
In this remarkably full novel, each character struggles with a sense that life is elsewhere. While some contemporary writers are questioning the conventions of character and interiority, de Kretser shows that the Modernist novel still has major work to do.
While some contemporary writers are questioning the conventions of character and interiority, de Kretser shows that the Modernist novel still has major work to do.