Twenty-odd pages into Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, I pounded the table and bellowed an Australian-accented ‘fuck yeah!’ This startled my wife, who startled the cat, which startled my gin and tonic into my lap. But it was worth it, and remains my unvarnished critical opinion. To varnish it a bit: The Life to Come is de Kretser’s sixth book, her first full-length novel since her 2013 Miles Franklin Award, and for my money one of the best to have been published in Australia in the past decade.
De Kretser follows a group of characters all dreaming of the titular life to come: Pippa is a middling Sydney novelist, creating a persona as she chases literary glory; Cassie seeks a deeper connection with Ash, her British-Sri Lankan boyfriend; in Paris, the French-Australian Celeste wants more than the interstices of her married lover’s life; and from Sri Lanka to Sydney, Christabel overlooks her loving companion Bunty and hankers for a more brilliant existence.
These stories are non-linear and largely separate — connected only by Pippa, Australia and recurrent themes and images. They read more as exquisite loops and furls of memory, lofting the reader back and forth through years of hopes and dreams, across wasted chances and regrets, to give an abundant sense of the characters’ internalities.
This evocation of memory — redolent of James Salter — never drifts too far into the characters’ own self-pity or regard, balanced as it is by an arch third-person voice that offers up their foibles and small prejudices to a carefully whetted knife. De Kretser’s satirical observations — on the literati, self-congratulation, suburban pretension —are so subtly deboning they remind me of Jane Austen’s. These flash from prose that is taut, lyrical, and intelligent, with an oblique gaze that — like Hilary Mantel’s — reveals a character or place with fresh and startling clarity: ‘The night rushed up her sleeves’; ‘he swallowed his tears like pills’; ‘summer hedges shiver like shorn lambs’. That sense of authenticity continues in the way de Kretser depicts Australia: using intellectual, expatriate and immigrant voices, she writes a more pluralistic national experience than dusty farms and fly-swatting pastoral.
I don’t often tumble out literary comparisons, but for de Kretser they seem justified to chart her standing as a world-class novelist. The Life to Come deserves all the gongs we can bang for it — I’ve kicked things off with a bellow and a cocktail in the lap.