Michelle De Kretser’s The Life to Come, released last September, is the Sri Lankan-Australian Miles Franklin Award winning author’s fifth full length novel.
If, like myself, you’re a young(ish) Australian who has benefitted from the country’s long running economic boom, conflates running out of pages on your passport with wisdom, and really doesn’t know when to shut the f—k up about how much you miss the coffee back home when traveling, The Life to Come may be a bitter pill to swallow. Especially since, according to the Sri Lankan-Australian author, you’re likely accustomed to chowing down on none less than an artfully tossed Ottolenghi salad. If you’re among the rest of the world who consider Australians “Canadians with tans” (when you do think of us at all) this book will serve as an illuminating insight into the so-called lucky country.
In the Miles Franklin Award winning author’s fifth novel, she spins an equally sardonic and touching portrait of contemporary Australia, as told through the loosely interwoven lives of the book’s motley crew of characters. Most compelling among them are culturally aspirational writer and foodie Pippa (née Narelle, she changed her name to up her likelihood of winning the Booker prize), and her Sri Lankan immigrant neighbor Christabel.
Pippa is a believable caricature of the worst kind of upwardly mobile and entitled Australian. Average in every way, she somehow feels entitled to greatness, at one point interpreting her university professor’s pitying encouragement as affirmation of her writing talent. She uses those around her as fodder for the crude and two-dimensional characters that color her pulpy novels, one of which is titled French Lessons – one of many strokes of genius on the part of De Kretser – as inspired by a brief stint living in Paris. Even Pippa herself acknowledges that she possesses “grit, longing, imagination, a capacity for hard work, a measure of selfishness, a shot of insanity – in short, everything needed for greatness except talent.”
When she’s not hustling her book publicist for undeserved attention, Pippa spends her time cooking intricate “ethnic” dishes and crafting a charming and politically correct online persona. Pippa certainly loves a good cause, be it battery hens or Indigenous people, and De Kretser deftly captures the contradictions between Pippa’s socially progressive posturing and her less advanced internal world. For example, she adopts an automatic email signature that acknowledges the traditional Indigenous owners of Australian land, but somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind also thinks her mother in law’s new Muslim Indian friend Rashida should try and be a little more likeable given “white people overlooked the double handicap of her religion and her race.”
Despite her fondness for garam masala and paying lip service to liberal values, Pippa doesn’t know very many brown people, until Christabel wanders into her life. Nudging 40 and left ultimately alone in Sri Lanka following the death of her parents, Christabel receives a lifeline when Bunty, an old school friend, tracks her down and invites her to live in Sydney. She arrives in Australia “suddenly modern”, with tedious office jobs, a smattering of lovers for whom she functions as a way to “explore darkness”, and her nourishing companionship with Bunty ahead.
As neighbors, Pippa and Christabel forge an unlikely relationship; the thin wall that separates their homes acts as a portal between two otherwise remote Australian experiences. Christabel is enchanted by Pippa’s glamorous world of writers’ festivals and endless dinner parties, while Pippa needs a convenient dog sitter and is curious as to whether her foreign neighbors are secretly lesbians. While with her sweet and quietly hopeful nature Christabel is clearly the more likeable of the pair, De Kretser’s characters are more nuanced than white Australian equals bad, migrant equals good. Both Christabel and Pippa experience loneliness and despair, and both dare to wish for a larger life.
Thankfully, their relationship does not serve as an easy fable of how the many differences that make up today’s contemporary, multicultural Australia could be overcome if we all just showed a little more neighborly love. The Life to Come does not go in for quick fixes and tidy endings, and certainly raises more questions about the Australian character than it answers. De Kretser is a truly beautiful writer, floating between poetic prose and quippy one-liners, which alone make for a delightful reading experience.
Put down the Ottelenghi cookbook, and prepare to be served some much-needed cultural self-reflection.