Humans are narrative creatures. We tell stories to make sense of ourselves, but our stories – be they historical, political, fictional, or personal – shape us as much as we shape them. In the service of narrative expediency, we often sacrifice nuance. We turn chance to prophecy, and accidents into choices. We justify and excuse ourselves. We anoint heroes and villains. As novelist Michelle de Kretser warns, it is ‘frighteningly easy’ to turn the people around us into characters and to forget that: ‘The only life in which you play a leading role is your own.’ De Kretser’s new novel, The Life to Come, cleverly exposes the perils of narrative egocentrism by refusing to create a centre. Rather, she splits the book into five distinct sections that overlay rather than interconnect, and in which human complexity is privileged over narrative simplicity.
A young academic drafts his first novel in the cold rooms of a borrowed house. A couple stand on opposite sides of a cultural door that neither knows how to open. A manuscript translator struggles to interpret her married lover. An ambitious writer uneasily straddles the class divide. A grieving expatriate reflects on a life lived in wait.
In each section, de Kretser’s protagonists are poised on the sharp edge of something – success, motherhood, heartbreak. The past is wakeful, but the future is waiting, ‘unfinished, looming in the dark’. The shape of that future is sketched for us, but never inked; this is not a book anchored by its endings. What matters is how each character tells their own story, how they account for their past and inhabit their present: what they remember, notice, and feel, who they love, and the scope of their loneliness. What emerges is a collective portrait of what we leave unsaid, from youth to death: our quiet yearnings, buried histories, and half-forgotten dreams.
There is often a dreamlike quality to The Life to Come, a sense that it is ‘at once removed from and more vivid than life’. Time moves forwards and backwards, it speeds and slows; years pass in a sentence, but languid minutes stretch across pages. De Kretser’s great strength as a writer is her capacity to render the sensory and the sensual. Few writers have so evocatively captured Sydney in all of its contradictory majesty: ‘The city was regulated and hygienic – occidental – yet voluptuously receptive to chaos and filth. It knew the elemental, antique drama of the sea.’
She is tactile and hyper-observant, as are her characters; the pleasure of this novel is in watching her watch them: ‘Sabine was wearing a cotton scarf, and a sweatshirt on which a hare crouched in grass. What did the fashion for these creatures signal, wondered Celeste. Shyness? Wildness? An invitation to the chase?’
As de Kretser writes: ‘every book had an internal rhythm: energetic, or languid, jittery or calm’. The rhythm of The Life to Come is hard to pin. There are times when it feels insistent as a drum, one crisp sentence after another. At others, it is claustrophobically interior, every object and exchange heavy with meaning. These tonal shifts are a product of the section breaks, ‘island continents: self-sufficient, self-enclosed’. A novel in archipelago.
Two characters power the narrative engine of The Life to Come – the only two that reappear in every section. It is no accident that they are both writers. Pippa Elkinson’s dreams of bringing imperious Sydney ‘to heel’ have been tempered by the realisation that she has ‘everything needed for greatness except talent’. George Meshaw writes novels that are critically lauded for their intelligence, but ‘intelligence is unAustralian’. George pities ‘effortful’ Pippa; Pippa cloaks her envy in faint praise. Their rivalry is a sly satire, which exposes the faultlines in contemporary publishing, from the dubious distinction between literature and popular fiction, to the rise of the celebrity cookbook. Pippa, in particular – with her seemingly unfettered sense of entitlement – offers de Kretser a means to confront the moral questions that haunt modern writers: Who owns a story? Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation? Who (or what) do our stories protect and damage?
Pippa is delightfully awful. Her politics are impeccable in their progressive thoughtlessness (‘Pippa would always need to demonstrate her solidarity with the oppressed – Indigenous people or battery hens, it scarcely mattered’), and her thoughtfulness is entirely performative (‘The self she had curated @pippapasses was warmly supportive of other writers, at least those on Twitter’). Her outfits are costumes; her opinions counterfeit. In each section, she appears like a shark, at once slick and abrasive; always moving forward and coldly unperturbed by the carnage she leaves in her wake. She is both monstrous and monstrously funny.
Despite her own warnings, de Kretser strays into caricature with Pippa; she is too perfect in her imperfections, too wilful in her obliviousness, too predictably gauche. The fourth section of the novel comes as a welcome remedy, as we step into Pippa’s mind and find it alive with insecurities: ‘Children and money and work: these things triangulated her marriage. Each represented a different kind of power, a different kind of satisfaction, and a different kind of jail.’
Pippa knows that she will never be good enough; she is seldom allowed to forget it, particularly in her marriage: ‘I am one kind of Australian,’ her mother-in-law reflects, ‘and you are another.’ That ‘kind of Australian’ is the striving kind, the lower-middle-class dreamer who understands that there is a game to be played, but isn’t privy to the rulebook.
De Kretser emigrated to Australia from Sri Lanka when she was a teenager, and was educated in Melbourne and Paris. The Life to Come, while similarly stretched between these three countries, is primarily a novel of Australia and Australians – how we see ourselves, and how others see us; why people are drawn here, and why they leave. As de Kretser has artfully demonstrated in her previous work (most notably the Miles Franklin Award-winning Questions of Travel (2012), she has a sharp understanding of Australian frailties: our quiet hierarchies, careless racism, and cultural cringe. In this book, she once again exhibits her insight, with caustic playfulness: ‘Why do Australians go on so much about food?’ a young woman asks. ‘Because they live in a country of no importance’, comes the answer. When a literature department searches for an Australian fiction expert, she writes: ‘After some difficulty, a professor who would admit to having once read an Australian novel was found.’
De Kretser’s vision of Australia will be easy to recognise, but hard to own. She presses on points of national tenderness, and they smart. Here is a country suspicious and resentful of its own success, and prone to delusions of victimhood. A country that saw: ‘pastures where there was red dust, geraniums where there were trees as old as time, no one where there were five hundred nations.’
The Life to Come cements Michelle de Krester’s place as a premier writer of Australian identity, not the mythologised version – of Anzacs, battlers, and bushrangers – but the globalised reality, our culture of cosmopolitan insulation and well-meaning tactlessness. A ‘lucky country’ in both senses: fortunate and complacent. A nation trying to slip free of the ‘shabby bargains’ and ‘old defeats’ of empire, and play the leading role in its own complex story.