International Women’s Day heralded any number of celebrations, revelations and discussions this year, but none perhaps more anticipated by literature-lovers than the Stella Prize Shortlist. The slightly intimidating 12 volume long list was culled to a more easily digestible six. The winner will be announced in mid-April. Awarded to extraordinary Australian female writers, the Stella Prize has become a foundational hallmark of literary success. 2016’s The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood remains on my favourite Aussie books of all time.
Every year I promise myself to make it through the entire shortlist. Some years I get very close. In 2018, I’ve started early, and have spent some time lounging, dreaming and laughing with The Life to Come by Michelle De Kretser.
It’s difficult to describe the plot in a nutshell here, because any kind of narrative is, at best, only visible when you squint from a distance. The publisher has suggested the work is a ‘meditation’, a suitable-enough label. The novel centres on a network of relationships at the centre of which is Pippa, a struggling young writer trying to break into the Australian literary scene. Her mentor is the more successful George, then there’s Celeste, who’s engaged in an affair with a married woman in Paris, and Cassie, a young woman trying to please her Sri Lankan boyfriend with extravagant meals from his homeland.
It’s a book about intimacy, about writing, about loneliness - but really it’s about these characters. De Krester descriptions are so perceptible that the writing almost gleams with a sharp edge. This honed blade gives the book it’s most stunning and readable quality: it’s sense of humour.
For me, a lover of genre fiction with more pop culture flavours, a novel like The Life to Come could wander too far into literary-snob territory. But De Kretser’s occasional embrace of satire is irresistible. Some sections come across as a kind of refined stand-up routine. Here’s an example – a description of a couple in Paris that we never meet again, but who just happen to be passing by our characters:
“One of those couples that populate Paris, a man with silvery, swept-back hair, a worshipful, thin-wrested young woman. A cardigan in a docile colour was draped around her shoulders. Her hips, streamlined in cunningly cut linen, nevertheless promised the production of sturdy heirs in a selfless perpetuation of family and nation. Anyone could see that she would prepare a light, delicious savoury flan that evening. While trimming half a kilo of slender green beans - she had risen at dawn to haggle over them in a market - she would comment intelligently on the latest developments in the Middle East. After supper, it would be time to draft the next chapter of her doctoral thesis, write the footnotes for the man’s forthcoming book, put on a load of his washing and practice the pelvic floor exercises that maintain his sexual pleasure at an optimum.”
Other biting moments come when de Kretser describes (with hilarious accuracy and, at times, cringing familiarity), the state of the Aussie publishing industry or, more broadly, Australia’s relationship with culture and sense of self.
Michelle De Kretser is a rare talent. Writers with her technical skill and deft hand are only a few in a generation. Her previous novels are well celebrated, Questions of Travel winning the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Life to Come’s add addition to the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist is just another of de Kretser’s achievements.
This book is probably best read over several days while lounging around, perhaps on holiday. This way you’ll be most able to disappear into the prose and let the intimate portrayals of the characters and their observations move you, humour you and, ultimately delight you.