"Hills are God's gift to our imagination", geography
teacher Brother Ignatius tells young Ravi, a Sri Lankan.
"Who can say what lies on the other side of a hill?
" He also tells him that geography is the triumph over
Michelle de Kretser's novel explores why we travel -
voluntary or necessary, driven by the desire to see and learn
new things or the need to escape?
Although the book serves up cut-and-dried answers, it uses
two very different characters to examine these questions
through their experiences over a 40-year period beginning in
the 1970s, told through alternating narratives.
Australian Laura is a First World traveller/tourist. Left
money by the aunt whose tales of exotic places fired her
youthful imagination, Laura heads off to Bali, then London,
doing the typical things and staying in typical flats.
Later, after a stint in a sophisticated apartment in Naples,
she returns to Australia, and to middle-class reality,
working for a travel book publisher and all the joys of
cubicles, office politics and redundancies. One of the book's
strengths is the changing jargon of the decades, all equally
stupid with hindsight.
Ravi travels, too, but he is motivated by very different
reasons - the need to save his neck in civil-war-ravaged Sri
Lanka. But long before he sets foot on a plane, he travels
through his imagination, through the internet.
Later, Ravi flees to Howard-era Australia, where he
encounters the prejudices all refugees do while
simultaneously marvelling at the country's spectacular
beaches and the things Aussies throw out in the rubbish.
After working as a rest-home attendant, Ravi eventually joins
Laura's firm as an IT worker.
Don't expect a big romantic finish - Ravi goes back home -
but that's not the point of this book. Laura and Ravi are
fully rounded characters, but Brother Ignatius' question
about what lies over the hills is the real focus.
Questions of Travel is a big book, more than 500 pages long.
There were times when I flagged a little, dipping into other
titles, but I was usually quickly pulled back by the
At one point she describes a weak winter sun that "showed as
round and red as the eye on a surveillance camera. It stayed
half an hour, as if that were all it could bear to record of
• Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian.