Some books come with such glowing reviews that it is difficult for them to live up to the hype. Perhaps that is what happened when I read de Kretser’s The Life to Come.
Recently, it had been splashed across ‘Best reads of 2017’ lists, announced as the winner of the Miles Franklin Award and shortlisted for The Stella Prize.
When I saw Richard Flanagan at The Wheeler Centre, he was reading it. How could it not be good?
And yes, while it was undoubtedly good, I never really felt engaged with it. I read it, waiting to be captured or moved by a storyline, and even though there were moving elements, particularly in the final of the five interconnected stories, the sadness was short-lived.
The Life to Come connects the lives of different characters, who all have some link with ambitious writer, Pippa. Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, it explores the idea of living a life without understanding what is important; in one story, Pippa carelessly wounds her elderly neighbour, and in another, a Parisian woman waits for her lover to choose her, when in reality, she always favours her husband and children.
Perhaps it is the brutal truths that de Kretser exposes that are difficult to read: the boyfriend who seems to think very little of his well-meaning girlfriend; the mother-in-law who collects immigrants to parade before her friends; the housemate with a sharp eye for the flaws of his housemate. No characters are particularly evil, or very likeable.
It is not necessarily a problem that I did not care much for the characters and that there was no great sadness to cry over or love to redeem the story. In some ways, it felt like the novel explored pinpoints of interest, with a common source, but untethered. And perhaps that was the point, as all of the characters drift along without much concern about the experience or lives of others. Worryingly, it is a novel that is of our time, complete with iPhones and Twitter.
No doubt, this book is very clever and insightful, exposing weakness and pretension. But for me, there was too little connection between the ideas, the characters and the chapters. I count it as a book that is worth reading for the steely gaze it places on contemporary behaviours and attitudes, if not particularly enjoyable.