Book Review: The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

The Life to Come…


Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, The Life to Come is a mesmerising novel about the stories we tell and don’t tell ourselves as individuals, as societies and as nations. It feels at once firmly classic and exhilaratingly contemporary.

Pippa is a writer who longs for success. Celeste tries to convince herself that her feelings for her married lover are reciprocated. Ash makes strategic use of his childhood in Sri Lanka but blots out the memory of a tragedy from that time. Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people.

Profoundly moving as well as wickedly funny, The Life to Come reveals how the shadows cast by both the past and the future can transform, distort and undo the present. This extraordinary novel by Miles Franklin-winning author Michelle de Kretser will strike to your soul.




My Thoughts:

The Life to Come is a novel that is very much open to the interpretation of each individual reader. More like five connected novellas instead of one continuous novel, Pippa is the anchor for all of them, a character I both loathed and loved in equal measure. Interestingly, upon reflection once I finished, I found that I liked Pippa best when I was in her story, the part called Pippa Passes. When viewed from each of the other character’s perspectives, I didn’t like her very much at all. I’m not familiar with Michelle de Kretser’s work, but to me, this felt intentional.

The Life to Come is a novel about its characters: their history, as much as their present. It’s stunningly honest and consequently both hilarious and discomforting. In each section there were characters I enjoyed and characters I did not, very much like life, really. All of these characters shared one thing in common, to my mind: they were all, to a certain degree, artificial, which oddly enough, enhanced their authenticity. The Life to Come raises the question: who are we? And, perhaps more importantly, who do people think we are?

Reading this novel made me think of a social interaction I had a few years back at a party. I was speaking with the host, who had asked me about my writing which inevitably led to a conversation about reading. He told me that he had all of Bryce Courtenay’s novels in hardcover, signed – bar his last one which hadn’t yet been published at that stage. I was suitably impressed, as was his intention of course. I told him that The Potato Factory novels were my favourite by Bryce, particularly Solomon’s Song and then asked him what his thoughts were; I was assuming he must be a fan and would have a favourite. What fan doesn’t? But he laughed and said he hadn’t read them. He didn’t even read, he’d only bought them so he could display them. So he could openly lie, socially, about who he was. He was a literary fake but not quite smart enough to hide it. I’ve never forgotten that conversation and the whole time I was reading The Life to Come, I was thinking of him, and of his efforts at social illusion, and how, essentially, we all probably fake it to some degree, because unless we actually tell, who would ever know? There are plenty of meat eaters tweeting about their vegetarianism and a whole host of people pledging allegiance via Facebook to causes they barely understand, much less truly believe in. Our lives are lived today under a microscope but most of us would prefer not to have our flaws magnified and picked over, so we deliberately present our best selves. For some, this is taken a step further as their best selves become new selves, in part or entirety.

The point of me bringing this up, is that it’s the best way I can articulate what this novel is about. It’s vast in scope and character detail, but the concept behind it is quite precise. We all have more to us than meets the eye. Some of us are comfortable with that, some of us are not. Some of us like to fake it until we make it, some of us are more subtle. The Life to Come examines this aspect of humanity in minute detail. It’s thought provoking and acerbic, at times funny while at others sad. Don’t expect a traditionally structured story; it jumps through time with a rapidity that is sometimes disconcerting and there’s never any real resolution. Sometimes, I had no idea what was going on or why a particular character and their story had been introduced; you just have to have faith in Michelle and keep on reading. The Life to Come is more of a witty and in-depth character study than a story as such, but it’s fascinating and real. So very real.

Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Life to Come for review.


The Author:

0_de_Kretser_MichelleMichelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and emigrated to Australia when she was 14. Educated in Melbourne and Paris, Michelle has worked as a university tutor, an editor and a book reviewer. She is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case, which won the Commonwealth Prize (SE Asia and Pacific region) and the UK Encore Prize, and The Lost Dog, which was widely praised by writers such as AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and William Boyd and won a swag of awards, including: the 2008 NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the 2008 ALS Gold Medal. The Lost Dog was also shortlisted for the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, the Western Australian Premier’s Australia-Asia Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Asia-Pacific Region) and Orange Prize’s Shadow Youth Panel. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her last novel, Questions of Travel, received 14 honours, including winning the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

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