The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin Books 2017) is the latest novel by Australian author Michelle de Kretser, and as we have come to expect from this writer, it is another complex and intricate story with many intriguing layers and a cast of finely-drawn characters. I was fortunate to hear Michelle speak recently at an Avid Reader Bookshop event in Brisbane, and her thoughtful and intelligent consideration of her own writing – and of the Australian literary scene – were every bit as compelling as her writing itself.
Michelle writes the interior life of her characters in a rich and nuanced way, while still managing to imbue her stories with the freshness and vibrancy of modern life. Her sense of humour is evident throughout her novels, and so it is with The Life to Come, a book that pokes irreverent fun at iconic Australian traditions and ‘takes the mickey’ out of the people in its pages. Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, the novel traverses times and settings through five distinct and separate, yet interconnected, stories. Reading almost as a series of novellas joined together by narrative threads, the novel is packed full of dense characterisation and authentic situations, complicated relationships and unusual perspectives.
We meet Pippa, a writer who yearns for success, and who has everything it takes to achieve it except, perhaps, for talent. Celeste is entangled in an affair with a married lover and unsure of her feelings. George is another writer (one wonders how much fun the author had inventing author characters and perhaps drawing on real-life acquaintances…) Ash’s Sri Lankan background lies close beneath the surface. After meeting in high school, Cassie is one of the few people who know that Pippa used to be called Narelle (but who ever won the Booker with a name like Narelle?!) The Ashfield Tamil keeps a spice store. Celeste and Pippa’s friendship is marred by Celeste’s discovery that Facebook renders her a bland recipient of Pippa’s general news announcements. Christabelle and Bunty met as children in Ceylon; now Bunty is dead and her friend misses her terribly. Rashida, Keith, Ronnie, Sabine, Eva, Lachlan, Djamila, Matt, Glenice, Kiki Mack, Mr Valente, Pombo, Raven, Sizzle, and of course Hank and Olly Faithful (because what would a de Kretser book be without dogs?) – this novel is absolutely teeming with characters, all of whom are delivered in complex and multi-coloured glory. This is a story about people’s perceptions of others, and about loneliness, ambition, greed, mistrust and intimacy. It is not a light read – you will be drawn deep down the rabbit holes of these characters’ lives and then go on a twisting and convoluted journey as you attempt to decipher the maze of their chronology. But it is a deeply satisfying novel, one that offers much intelligent discourse, and much to contemplate.