Travelling over the hills and far away

Questions of Travel<br><b>Michelle de Kretser<br></b><i>Allen & Unwin"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 history.

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 beautiful writing.

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 earthly iniquity."

• Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian.